restricted access Virtual America: Sleepwalking through Paradise (review)
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Virtual America: Sleepwalking through Paradise. By John Opie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. Pp. xviii+260. $45.

John Opie, one of the founding voices of environmental history, has connected the history of technology to the environment in seminal work on aquifers and other portions of the landscape. His latest book, Virtual America, is more idiosyncratic than his previous historical works. Here, Opie moves beyond historic landscapes and ideal scenes to discuss what he identifies as a crisis of “placelessness” that looms in an era of overindulgence and trust in computer worlds. For historians of technology, his book provides refreshing context to a rather well-known critique of the era of computing.

Virtual America is a readable tract of cultural theory. Typically, critiques of computing technology place themselves within the context of the theoretical literature. Opie does not. Here, the theoretical approach is simply his own, though he does use the work of geographer Yi-fu Tuan (ideas of escapes being imaginative reconstructions of reality that speak volumes about the perceiver) to position his own approach to imagined landscapes. While this may make Virtual America less interesting to theoreticians, it does provide historians with something very intriguing.

Opie opens the book by explaining that he will explore not only physical place but also our contemporary “alternative home place, that of a virtual reality in the landscapes of cyberspace.” He continues, “Virtual reality is a parallel world that is not something different from concrete space, but instead is a species of the same genus, space, widely accepted, although electronic rather than physical” (p. x). Cyberspace “provides a space of disembodiment and dislocation, where one’s identity is defined by personal construction that makes traditional body codes, community, and geographic place irrelevant” (p. 10). Our growing infatuation with these idealized scenes has turned us into “sleepwalkers” through reality, ignoring the actual beauty of nature around us.

Although his insight about “sleepwalkers” is not particularly profound, Opie makes unique contributions to the contextualization of our contemporary methods of idealization. First, he sets forth a terminology that other scholars may usefully apply to their own case studies: first nature, the natural world; second nature, the metropolitan infrastructure of the built world; and third nature, virtual reality in cyberspace. These terms may enable other scholars to consider how a single site might function on multiple levels of perception.

To chart his history of place-making in American history, Opie divides the “dreamed-of better life” into three parts: the Engineered America of our built environment, the Consumer America of our passion for material well-being, [End Page 961] and the Triumphal America of our conviction that we are the exceptional model for all the world. He claims that each of these traditions has encouraged our placelessness and thereby increased our indifference to the real and actual. Indeed, categories that may strike scholars as arbitrary or overly selective may actually enable his book to serve an effective function in history of technology classes. Chapters begin with a grouping of writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, who have used images of nature to take Americans into unknown places. In the process, Opie argues, they also created national myths of place that have filtered our experiences as a nation. Opie also includes nineteenth-century artists. As he considers how virtual realities of the computer era fit into this chronology, he asks: “How far can we go without geography and history—First and Second Nature—to construct an authentic personal identity and a national identity?” (p. 37). His inferred response is that by following such a path toward artificiality, Americans are in peril of losing their souls.

By the time he concludes, Opie has made his cause entirely clear, his passionate concern that the idea of place has been undercut by false replicas and “become plastic, stretched and shaped like taffy” (p. 177). The way to redemption—to arising from our walking slumber—writes Opie, “. . . is to render place meaningful even while our contemporary world rushes toward placelessness. By being inhabitants, we have the power to translate a location, changing it from a site measured merely in dollar signs into a place that...