Nowhere are media to be found among the list of beings that Bruno Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence has so far discovered. Even the concept of “communication” does not belong to the metalanguage of Latour’s pluralistic ontology. It would seem that these basic concepts of modern social theory are subsumed under the ideas of “association” and “mediation” and thus not a suitable matter for differentiation into networks of their own. However, the list is not complete. The door is open. But the threshold is high. The master himself does not make it easy to get through the door. In order to be acknowledged as a mode of existence, a network must have its own kind of crisis, hiatus, rupture, or breach, that is, there must be some reason, why actors make efforts to associate in a particular way. Furthermore, a network must have its own trajectory or direction of establishing continuity and jumping over the gaps. Legal associations are different from scientific associations, and these again are different from religious associations. Third, a network must also meet certain conditions of felicity or infelicity regarding what counts as “truth” for it. Quite obviously, legal truth conditions are different from religious, political, scientific, or artistic truth conditions. Fourth, networks “institute” beings of a certain mode and they do this for a certain purpose, function, or what Latour calls “alteration.” If a mode of existence, or a being, cannot be identified by these criteria, then it has no place in the list of modes of existence that the AIME project is assembling. Despite these hurdles, we ask if media and communication do not demand to be considered as modes of existence in their own right. Can a future media studies be based upon communication and media as a specific mode of existence?
Ever since Clay Shirky (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LabqeJEOQyI) proclaimed that there is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure, the role of filters in the network knowledge economy has taken center stage. With over 3 billion searches per day, Google’s search engine is probably the most used filter in the world. Google’s PageRank algorithm – and 250 other criteria that are much less publicized – seem to work so well for filtering that knowledge out of the ocean of information in the web that is relevant and reliable for our questions and concerns that we have come to believe that Google is presenting us a complete and unbiased view of the world. We tend to forget that there is indeed a problem of filter failure and that perhaps no filter, not even the algorithm searching for Google, can be a mirror of the world.
The public sphere of modern bourgeois society is supposed to be the domain in which everyone can speak freely to everyone in order to reach consensus on matters of concern and on that basis coordinate cooperative action. The problem with this concept is that the spatial and temporal conditions of face-to-face interaction make it impossible for everybody to speak to everybody. Within the parameters of modernity this contradiction could not be resolved. The media, at first print media in the form of leaflets, newsletters, and newspapers, and then electronic broadcast media came to be the forms of communication structuring the public sphere. When private individuals came together to form a public, they lost their privacy and individuality and were transformed into anonymous masses. The defining characteristic of mass media is “that no interaction among those co-present can take place” (Luhmann). The private individuals of the public became the masses of the silent majority, who had restricted access to information and could therefore be manipulated by those in control of the media. Cooperative action was in reality not the outcome of one-to-one deliberation, but of one-to-many, hierarchical communication. No modern politician, businessperson, or scientist denies the power of the media, and no one who does not use the media effectively will gain and maintain political power, successfully market their products, or even get research grants. Modernity attempted to solve this problem by means of the concept of representation. Representation explains how democracy is possible under the conditions of the dichotomy between interaction and organization. Democratic process and the counting of votes became the mechanism of transforming one-to-one into one-to-many. Under the regime of the hierarchical one-to-many communciation, however, representatives could only speak for the people in the mode of speaking to the people.