All Space is Virtual Space

As I’ve been working on my project for the DH seminar this semester, it’s occurred to me in several of our discussions that mapping and visualization aren’t so different. Indeed, we might even say that they’re the same thing in different terms: maps are abstractions of space meant to make large quantities of space readable, along with their social and cultural attachments (towns, regions, nations, etc.). Visualizations are abstractions of data, meant to make large quantities of data, and trends within them, visible. So what I’m doing with ImagePlot–visualizing game narratives–really isn’t so different from someone doing a mapping project visualizing the *where* of a set of data.

Many DH and software studies scholars have noted how visualizations rely on these abstractions, the curious concoctions of distance, transformation, and relationship that visualizations require. Yet as we read about mapping projects, and particularly spatial humanities this week, it struck me that all spaces rely on abstraction, or perhaps mediation. It’s easy to see how maps are abstractions of space, but even as we navigate the spaces around us, the way we perceive and navigate those spaces is entirely dependent on sensory inputs that are interpreted and rendered to consciousness by the brain. In this sense, all spaces and all of our interactions with spaces are built on abstraction, even in our moment-to-moment experiences that seem to be immediate.

I think this realization is important because it deconstructs dichotomies that say some things are “real,” “actual,” or “natural,” and other things are “constructed,” “virtual,” “fake.” The history of maps demonstrates how untenable that distinction is: the abstractions of space have very real, direct consequences for our experiences of space. And I think we see something similar in contemporary gaming, and attempts to write off virtual or digital spaces as not being “real.” This argument is especially prevalant in online trolling and harassment cultures: it’s ok to treat people like garbage, because it’s all online and therefore has no consequences. The realization that all of our spaces are abstractions, that all spaces are virtual ones, helps us reject that premise that is causing a lot of harm in contemporary social spaces.

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