Mixed reality (see post on Mixed Reality) describes a form of social and cultural evolution that merges digital technology with all aspects of life such that houses, workplaces, offices, schools, universities, libraries, public buildings, hospitals, indeed, entire cities including the complex systems of transportation, energy, logistics, and communication they depend upon become interfaces, that is, one great complex, automated information and communication system. Building the associations, enrolling the actors, translating their programs, navigating, managing, coordinating, and making use of this heterogeneous, hybrid network of humans and non-humans is the job of what may be called the social operating system. An operating system, such as Windows, iOS, or Linux is the key software of a computer. It enables and controls input and output devices, coordinates functions, guides processes, and monitors the operation of all elements of the complex hardware and the various applications that run on it. It holds the entire system together. The idea of a social operating system was made popular with the rise of Web 2.0 and what is called “social media.” It refers to the increasing dependence of almost all activities on digital information and communication and to the integration of technological systems into work, play, learning, health care, etc.
The impact of digital information and communication systems upon all aspects of life has raised the question of the relation of the physical world to so-called “virtual reality.” Already such visionary thinkers as Norbert Wiener and J. C. L. Licklider had prophesized a human-computer symbiosis on the basis of automated information systems. Jean Baudrillard’s “hyperreality” described a situation in which the distinction between the physical and virtual realities no longer made any sense. New media studies have pointed out that business, politics, education, health care etc. are becoming increasingly determined by processes, activities, and communication that occur via digital media, digital information processing, and intelligent automated information systems. Indeed, new media studies have shown that a process of “transcoding” (Manovich) is reconfiguring the social along the lines of digital media, which amounts to admitting that new media are not media at all in the traditional sense, but general conditions of communicative action as such. Information is not a message, but condition of being, an ontological category. Much as Kantian categories new media are becoming the conditions of the possibility of constructing viable networks. If new media become general conditions of constructing social order, this has consequences for ontology and the understanding of the real.
It is a commonplace as well as a premise for thinking about the global network society, that networked information and communication technologies have – for better or worse – freed us from the limiting conditions of time and space. Castells spoke about the “timeless time” and the “space of flows” typical of network society. If there was one thing everyone thought they knew about the digital media revolution, then it was that communication and action were global and instantaneous. This is the whole point of connectivity. We can access information and act upon it, whenever, wherever, independently of where we physically happen to be.
This is why the book Net Localities by Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva (Oxford, Blackwell 2011), authors who are indisputably among the forefront of network theorists, is interesting; because the authors seem to claim the opposite: “Physical space has become the context for … information” (9).
Citing the development of location based services such as Google Maps, Four Square, etc. on the basis of geographic information systems, GPS, mobile devices, and associated technologies, the authors proclaim that space does indeed matter after all and that we need no longer feel lost in the ubiquitous cloud of information that the Web seems to be.
When talking about social changes in the wake of the digital media revolution the concept of “networked publics” (see Kazys Varnelis (ed), “Networked Publics” MIT Press 2008) is useful and interesting. If there is such a thing as a global network society, it would be reasonable to assume that the public sphere is in some way conditioned by networked information and communication technologies (NICT). Mizuko Ito in the Introduction to the collection of essays on topics such as place, culture, politics, and media, summarizes the affordances of NICT in terms of four “technosocial trends;” 1) the accessibility to digital tools and networks; 2) many-to-many and peer-to-peer forms of distribution; 3) the creation of value at the edges of the network; and 4) aggregation of culture and information. These trends produce “networked publics,” that is “a linked set of social, cultural, and technological developments” that replace the public sphere of traditional mass media societies; a public sphere that was, after all, nothing more than an audience of consumers, a silent majority, or the anonymous masses.