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Title: Becoming Virtual
Author: Pierre Levy (trans. by Robert Bononno)
Publisher: Plenum
Copyright: 1998
ISBN: 0-306-45788-1
Pages: 207
Price: $26.95
Rating: 90%
Discussions of what is "real" and what is not are often reduced to the tired philosophy joke:

Teacher: Prove to me that chair exists.

Student: What chair?

"Proving" whether something truly exists would require an observer to have knowledge beyond that of his contemporaries. It is an interesting question, but not terribly helpful in making decisions about anything. In Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, Pierre Levy dispenses with such uninteresting questions and focuses on how the "virtual", which he defines as "the knot of tendencies or forces that accompanies a situation, event, object, or entity, and which invokes a process of resolution: actualization."

So it would seem that actualization involves taking the web of possibilities, much like what is denoted in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and "collapsing the waves" into a concrete object or situation. However, Levy makes an important distinction between "realization", which is the transformation of the possible to the static, and "actualization", which "implies the production of new qualities a transformation of ideas, a true becoming that feeds the virtual in turn". To steal a framework from one conception of time travel, the real is on a fixed path, subject to entropy but not, unless transformed again, capable of presenting actors with new possibilities and solutions to problems. The virtual can take one of many paths, some of which are real, others actual (and, by their nature, subsequently virtual again).

After discussing virtualization in context of text, the body, and the economy, Levy offers a language for discussing virtualization. His "trivium", or three-pillared construct, consists of:


  • Grammar: the units of and rules for constructing meaning.
  • Dialectic: reasoning using those meanings.
  • Rhetoric: communicating that reasoning.

By working within this framework, Levy argues, humankind will be able to share knowledge about the virtual intelligently. But to what end?

The goal of this sharing is to develop what Levy refers to as "collective intelligence", the subject of an earlier book by that name from Plenum. Collective intelligence implies that groups of individuals, rather than becoming less intelligent as their numbers grow due to "crowd mentality", are able to combine additively (or even exponentially). Just as soccer teams are made of up autonomous individuals acting independently, their experience playing together and knowledge of the game gives them the ability to anticipate others' moves and combine in ways an "unconnected" team could never imagine.

Becoming Virtual is a challenging book, especially for readers like myself who are not trained philosophers. However, anyone working through it will discover a deep and worthwhile approach to actualizing the potential of the virtual. Really.

Curtis D. Frye (  is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews.  He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.