If a physical tree falls in the forest does that make the virtual tree more real?

In his postlogue/added chapter to his book, Rheingold asks whether the use of the “phrase virtual community is a perversion of the notion of community?” (2001, p.325). He then goes on to talk about Clifford Stoll as an example of someone who found community online even though Stoll thinks of virtual community as a “deceptive illusion” (in Rheingold, 2001, p. 325).

About two years ago I had the privilege and adventure to hear and to interact with Cliff Stoll. It was my privilege to drop him off at the convention center where he was staying. In our limited interaction, I found him to be fully committed to the idea of strong, physical connections between people, and disillusioned with the idea that online or technology-mediated communication was either as good as or better than face-to-face. As much as Rheingold is committed to the idea of online community – albeit reframed as social networks in his postlogue, Stoll appeared committed to the real world. Like Rheingold, he wanted a better world – he generally saw technology as opposing it. My question to Rheingold would be – and to you as my audience – is it really an ironic example of community that Stoll met KJ online and stayed at her deathbed? Does his physical act validate a virtual relationship? Could Stoll’s action also be interpreted as someone who realized that there can be sacred space in the physical (in certain (AKA death) or all physical spaces) that perhaps transcends or is irreplaceable by virtual communities? Are virtual communities crutches or accessories? Do virtual communities hold up a debilitated society or do they provide an alternate way of interaction, i.e. a matter of preference allowing for differences of taste and opinion?

In his blog Andrew Keen argues against what he sees as a modern sense of “techno-utopianism” (2006). People even disagree on the term. Is the world better or worse with the advent of this technology? Even if the Internet is a mostly neutral tool/toolkit, is our culture inclined to use it in a manner that benefits or erodes society given its current tendencies or metaphysical proclivities?

An aside – does Stoll’s argument “ring true” with me before I dug into the meat of the ideas of virtuality because of the force his physical presence? Would his argument have resonated as strongly through the written word or online chat room? Would I have even found the argument there? I’m not sure. Still, I’m of the opinion, that at least in the case of Cliff Stoll – the force of his personality could not be felt through a digital medium. Others, perhaps inhabit the force of their personality more strongly online…

3 thoughts on “If a physical tree falls in the forest does that make the virtual tree more real?

  • September 4, 2006 at 7:38 pm


    You hit the nail on the proverbial head with your questions. Personally I am of the opinion that VC and RL can and in fact coexist and merge to a great degree. Moreover, I believe that people who are strong belongers in real life will be just as strong belonger off-line.

  • September 5, 2006 at 9:13 am

    Just another thought. Would’ve Rheingold’s book been as succesful and capable of capturing the public imagination if it talked about “social networking in cyberspace” instead of “homesteading on the electronic frontier”?

  • September 5, 2006 at 11:14 am

    It sounds like you see “belonging” and/or “connection” as part of a personality trait or learned behavior of some sort. That specific individuals are more likely to find community either on or offline.

    As for Rheingold’s book, what makes it an intriguing read is in part his idealism – his great belief in the potential of technology to shape one of the things we most value in life. There is more personal appeal to the idea of “homesteading”, whereas “social networking” would have sounded like yet another business book.


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