When a word passes from common parlance into the IT sphere, and then back into common parlance, it usually implies one of two things.
Either the concept has been so widely publicised that it can be diluted and debased to suit the purpose of any hack, marketer or advertising executive, or it has been such a flop that it becomes a kind of in-joke from which no one is excluded. Information superhighway comes into the former category.
The paperless office is definitely in the latter.
The word virtual is an exception. Already to be found everywhere from television to cornflakes, it still hovvers in limbo between adulation and ridicule. IBM has begun knocking it in a press advertising campaign - which of course immediately makes me want to stand up for the word.
But elsewhere it has acquired a status somewhere between cult and outright religion.
In a recent episode of Superman, The Radio Times informed me, our hero nearly became 'trapped in a virtual reality world'. More evidence, I suppose, that brain and brawn are reluctant partners - perhaps the episode ended when some bright spark said: 'Hey, Superman, why don't ya just take off the headset?'
Kellogg's, meanwhile, is trying to tempt me to eat more of its cornflakes (if I did, I should have to keep my own milch-cow) by offering free 'virtual videos' of sporting heroes in action. These are in fact the tacky little pictures which appear to change when you tilt them, the same as the ones that cereal manufacturers were giving away when I was a lad. Perhaps Kellogg's meant to call them virtually useless videos.
Part of the problem is that virtual has two quite contradictory meanings: almost, as in a virtual certainty; and unreal, as in virtual reality.
It has become like one of those Arabic words which are said to have three meanings: the true meaning, its exact opposite, and some part of a camel.
(When I worked at a school in Morocco, there was a boy whose name was perilously similar to the Arabic for bollocks. You had to be very careful if you called to him across the playground).
I fear that the word virtual is rapidly becoming a form of Newspeak to be invoked and misused in the name of any kind of commercial or political chicanery. We are all familiar with the concept, if not the appellation, of virtual software. This floats mirage-like from the labs of the world's great software houses nine months before the actual product, and scuppers anyone's chances of selling upgrades or competing products in the interim.
Dealers are equally familiar with virtual profits, the result of the increasing stinginess of manufacturers, distributors and customers which are unwilling to sell or buy at a reasonable price. (Virtual profits are not to be confused with virtual prophets, the people who for years have been promising us realistic virtual reality.)
Racing punters long ago learned to avoid a virtual certainty, which usually turns out to be a knock-kneed old nag which doesn't stop at the winning post, but trots lamely on to the catfood factory. And the Government is well on the way to offering us virtual healthcare and virtual social services in the hope that we won't notice the demise of the real thing.
But why stop at virtual reality? There must be plenty of other V-words out there (not to mention a few V-signs), just waiting for their turn.
There's verminous reality, which describes the hygiene of a programming team at the point where virtual software is about to become the real thing; ventral reality, when you face up the effect that voracious reality has had on your waistline; and vertiginous reality, where you climb a hill in fog, which clears to reveal that you have been eating your sandwiches on the edge of a precipice.
The theme park industry, which has always dealt in virtual reality, will soon cotton on. Visigoth reality will cater for the kind of people who would like to take a sledgehammer to Legoland. Viticulture reality will re-create the vineyards of Burgundy in a disused quarry while flogging cheap plonk from Hungary. And veloci-pede reality will be devoted to the early heroes of the bicycling era, like Mr Dunlop and Miss Penny Farthing.
For criminals who have binged on venal reality, police interrogators will encourage veracious reality with the judicious application of vicious reality. TV talk shows will echo to the sound of vituperative reality.
Stunning sunsets will display the glories of vermilion reality. Even virtual reality itself will be given the more accurate description of vicarious reality. Eventually, everything will be reduced to a state of verbiage reality.
Now, about that camel. If every word also means part of a camel, which parts do the names of various PC products, companies and personalities refer to? Answers on a postcard.
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