Is It Time to Remove the Term “Virtual” From our Mapping Vocabularies?

June 29, 2011

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I was all set to enjoy the two hours of peace while my nephew had swim practice and write the opinion piece that’s been brewing for some time. It’s the one where I argue that the term “virtual map” can safely be replaced by just “map.” But, I’m giving myself permission to start elsewhere. I want to start with “virtual learning.”

I was just sent an article about how Virginia officials have selected providers for statewide expansion of virtual learning. What is virtual learning? Per the article, “[t]he programs, which include for-profit and public schools, will provide full-time online programs, supplemental programs, and hybrid or blended-learning programs.” So, in fact, there’s nothing virtual about them. They are real learning programs that may include some online content.

Now, I understand that at one time we used the term “virtual” to describe online versions of things that had a tradition of more physicality. You may have run into the terms, virtual books, virtual classrooms, virtual magazines and virtual globes. But I for one am ready to drop the “virtual” from those and other phrases.

For now the world refers mostly to e-books, not v-books, but in time I think we’ll use the term “book” for both the downloadable (less expensive, digital one) and the one made from dead trees. The phrase “virtual classroom” was only a valuable term for a short time. It was the (regrettable) time when we tried so hard to make the digital version of a physical item (the “desktop”) look just like its real world counterpart. My students at Penn State would laugh mightily if you suggested they learned in a virtual classroom. Nothing on the Penn State World Campus website (or any other online educational institution’s site that I’ve visited) has anything that resembles a classroom. Today’s online learning environment looks most like a social media/content management environment.

“Virtual magazines” didn’t take off, thankfully! That term creates images in my head of the horrid digital versions with the pages that flip and make ruffling noises. There are many technologies to create them (and a handful of geo publications that use them), but I hold my ground and continue to argue that the physical form does not translate well to laptop or tablet. I’m excited to see what the iPad form factor does to push along the interface of what are simply magazines.

Many readers will recall the introduction of the first virtual globe. Microsoft’s Encarta Virtual Globe debuted in 1997 and ran from CDs. Online virtual globes (that didn’t require those CDs) including NASA’s WorldWind and Google Earth followed in the mid-2000s. Are there physical globes in kids’ rooms these days? I wonder if teachers or students refer to Google Earth as a virtual globe or simply a globe?

Now we come to the virtual map. I see that term quite a bit as I try to keep up with the latest news about mapping for our All Points Blog. A recent story on Virtual Alabama (I’m okay with virtual in the name of that project) describes it as “virtual map technology to help first responders.” It’s just map technology to me. An article on an international tech competition for local governments features Dublin, Ohio’s “detailed virtual map of a museum as part of a platform for augmenting visitors' experiences at specific locations with digital data.” To me, it’s just a map. A local paper in Alaska profiles a woman using SketchUp who “has helped put up about 15 buildings on the Homer virtual map,” aka Google Earth. To me, it’s the Homer map.

My reasoning for endorsing the removal of “virtual” goes beyond the argument that the maps are real (made from real electrons, if not real paper). I suggest “virtual” can go by the wayside because a map (or globe) is a representation. No one has ever specified the media in which it must be created. The old rock tablet map on the cover of my college text book (Spatial Organization, aka The Blue Bible) was not originally on paper. Was it not a map? Thus, if the map is made of electrons lighting up pixels on my laptop, is it any less a map? Not to me.

Journalists seem to agree with me. I found only 13 uses of the term “virtual map” in English news articles on Google News for the last month. I found just five references for “electronic map” and 75 for “digital map.” There are 57,000 references in that month of news to “map,” many of which use the term as a verb. Many others refer to redistricting maps, which while they may be printed out, are for the most part derived from what were once called “virtual maps.”


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