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95 - Virtual Travel

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 July 2019

Margaret Topping
Affiliation:
Queen's University Belfast.
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Summary

Since the first decade of this century, programmes such as ‘Second Life’ have associated the term ‘virtual’ with a ‘computerised or digitized simulation’ (www.etymonline. com). Yet, while the wish-fulfilment these technologies represent is already implicit in much earlier (fifteenth-century) uses of the term to denote ‘something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact’, a step further back reveals fourteenth-century origins in the capacity to ‘influence by physical virtues or capabilities’ (from Latin virtus, literally ‘manliness, manhood’). This apparent tension between bodily experience/reality and its simulation is suggestive for a reflection on virtual travel, particularly in light of Rosi Braidotti's (2013, 3) diagnostic of the posthuman condition as one where ‘the boundaries between the categories of the natural and the cultural have been displaced and blurred by the effects of scientific and technological advances’. What does this mean for travel? Do these technologies offer the potential to experience everywhere, or nowhere? Does virtual travel herald democratic access to a diverse sense of place, or a beguiling placelessness whose very accessibility demands some ethical challenge?

Leisure travel is making increasing use of virtual technologies: tourist attractions offer 4D cinematic experiences which create an impression of time and place, while the promise of borderlessness is humorously explored in Gemma Bowes's (2007) article on the world's first virtual tour operator, ‘Synthtravels’:

I'm ambling along the beach. […] I follow a sign for a treehouse campsite and find a stylish open-air lodge, with verandas built up into the trees and bean bags and designer chairs round open fires. I recline for a while before Mario, my tour operator, says he wants to buy me some designer clothes before taking me skiing. Then he'll take me to see some historical sites and meet some celebrities.

At once enticing and troubling, such experiences ‘trick’ the audience into an impression of full sensory participation, an impression of embodied experience which is precisely the product of a disembodied, that is, virtual, world. The sociopolitical implications of this conundrum may not be far-reaching in a leisure context, and the ease of global, virtual travel at the click of a mouse is cause for celebration, but technology has advanced faster than human understanding of the ethical implications of using it.

Type
Chapter
Information
Keywords for Travel Writing Studies
A Critical Glossary
, pp. 280 - 282
Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2019

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