A good dictionary covers the basics: "Virtual" is related to the noun, "virtue," which we know to mean, "a morally good quality," like integrity or honesty, from Latin virtus, "merit," "perfection," from vir, "man." The transition from vir to the rest is a challenging etymological puzzle (while you're at it, consider "woman of virtue," a woman who has not had sex with a man), but my focus here is the equally mystifying modern usage of "virtual."
Back to the dictionary- there are three broad definitions of "virtual":
Number 1: "Almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition : the troops stopped at the virtual border." Virtual borders are not official borders on a map, but de facto borders, determined by use.
[Note: Only definition Number 1 clearly references the historic usage of virtue, in the sense of "possessing certain virtues." In the example above, virtual borders have the "virtue" of being observed by practice, though not the virtue of being indicated on maps.]
Number 2: "In computing, not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so : a virtual computer;" In other words, imaginary.
Number 3: "Physics, denoting particles or interactions with extremely short lifetimes and indefinitely great energies, postulated as intermediates in some processes." In other words, particles, or things, that exist for such a brief period of time that their reality as things is questionable.
I would have guessed that "virtual reality" derived from Number 3, since Number 3 is the most confusing. Does the length of time that something exists have bearing on whether it exists? How long do individual humans exist? In galactic time, it's not very long. So is ours a lesser existence? That subject will have to wait for another essay, however, since "virtual reality" derives from definition Number 2, which means, as noted, imaginary.
Under virtual reality we get: "The computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors."
The question I ask at this point is, why do we need to call computer-generated simulation any sort of reality, as if it were a type of reality? We never had this need with novels, plays or movies. Those are not types of realities. They are imaginary.
In modern, media based culture, we do seem to have a need to think, or feel, that we create our reality. It is a sort of honesty, in one sense. After all, when we turn on the news and see what is happening in far away parts of the world, the news show is constructing reality, so that what we receive is not reality only, but a reality put together by the show. We have "reality shows," in which people behave in stage-managed ways, real only in the sense that we've made the behavior real on the show.
I'm calling this usage "honest" because, unlike past ages when, for instance, young men recruited for the Crusades were told that various things were happening in the Holy Land that required invasion, those various things were held to be real, not virtually real. So our culture, by holding that certain things can be virtually real, as opposed to just real, admits a pervasive doubt into our discourse, and doubt is a virtue.
The extended context is not so hopeful, however, because it suggests that we don't require actual reality from our media, that it is enough to produce simulated, virtual reality, as video games do.
In this context we're ready to consider ISIS, which, with its professionally produced, ready for prime time video of a man burning to death, has realized the predictions of numerous science fiction novels, from the media-mediated wars of George Orwell's 1984 to the blurred lines between war and mass entertainment in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games. On the day of the ISIS video, our national news anchors breathlessly described the "high production values" of the video, Scott Pelly of CBS marvelling that no Hollywood studio could have done "better," as if he were delivering a movie review. In a sense he was.
The next day my friend showed me a video on his computer that his girlfriend had sent him. It purported to be a recording of the transmission from a drone that was conducting an attack on ISIS ground troops who were attacking the peshmerga (Kurdish enemies of ISIS, thus our allies). It was a nighttime attack, the ground troops glowing white through infrared lenses. The chatter from drone control, which was hundreds or thousands of miles from the scene, was dispassionate though highly engaged, technical, referencing targets and coordinates, ordering rocket and 30mm fire that resulted moments later in white flashes where running forms had been. It looked exactly like a video game. My friend and I could have been blasting aliens or Kazakhs (a favorite game foe for a while). Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game came to mind, in which hot-shot 9th grade gamers are told by the military that they are trying out a new training video, while they are in fact fighting real aliens (spoiler alert: Book III reveals that the invading force was actually on a peaceful mission).
What do these musing have to do with the real ISIS? And by the way, my point is not that ISIS is not real (or evil). It's hard to see how their actions could be faked. That man was really burned, and the earlier victims were really beheaded. I'm talking about the thinking behind ISIS, specifically their marketing department, and they clearly have one. The War of ISIS is packaged for young men the way a video game would be packaged. You know how you'll be watching a TV show that young people also watch, and suddenly there's a commercial, long minutes of CGI heroes blasting a variety of monsters, with forceful titles, like End of Doom Part III! Now it's The Rise of ISIS Part I!
Our commentators are wondering where ISIS came from, and what it wants. It is not a country. It has no past as an established enemy, no clear parentage. Its psychology seems not to reference anything in the surrounding world.
In other words, ISIS somehow does not seem real. Virtually, though, it's real enough. And it certainly has no problem with ratings. There's no question that we'll have to win this war, virtually and really.