Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology

Volume 10, Issue 3, Spring 2007

Real and Virtual Places

Edward Relph
Pages 17-25

Spirit of Place and Sense of Place in Virtual Realities

About forty years ago, when print media were still in their ascendancy, Marshall McLuhan argued that all media are extensions of the senses and that the rational view of the world associated with print is being replaced by a world-view associated with electronic media that stresses feelings and emotions (McLuhan, 1964). In 2003 researchers from the School of Information Management Sciences at Berkeley estimated that five exabytes (five billion gigabytes) of information had been generated in the previous year, equivalent to 37,000 times the holdings of the Library of Congress and that 92.00% of this was on magnetic media, mostly hard disks, while only 0.01% was in print (, 2003). This SIMS estimate could be wrong by several orders of magnitude and it would still be clear that the era of the printed word is waning rapidly. We are well-advised to pay attention to McLuhan’s suggestion that electronic media change how we think and how we feel. Sense of place and virtual reality are both inextricably caught up in this cultural-technological upheaval. I have written about the concept of ‘place’ from a phenomenological perspective for many years and have achieved a reasonable understanding of its subtleties, but I have a limited knowledge of digital virtual reality and its technical attributes. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a mutual interaction is at work between what might be called ‘real’ place and virtual places, that digital virtual reality shares characteristics with other electronic media and that our experiences of real places are being changed those same media. This essay explores these issues particularly from the perspective of the distinction between spirit of place and sense of place.