Layers and Filters

In the wake of the digital revolution networking breaks out of traditional spatial and temporal limitations on access to information and cooperative action such that new and unforeseen possibilities emerge. Communication and action have traditionally been conditioned by spatial, temporal, and physical or bodily parameters. What could be perceived, known, and communicated and the conditions of action were determined largely by the physical “context,” the place and time where an actor was bodily present. Someone standing on a street corner in Lower Manhattan experiences a different world, has access to different information, and has different possibilities of action, then someone herding goats in the Pyrenees. The information available to these persons and the opportunities of action open to them is of course also determined by their education, the location of the nearest library, the available means of transportation, and the time, effort, and cost required to contact someone in order to get an answer to a question, initiate a financial transaction, coordinate cooperative action and so on. In the network society these spatial, temporal, and physical conditions are no longer the primary parameters of knowing and acting. Instead reality presents itself as a play of layers and filters.

The concept of layer in digital technology usually refers to functional levels within a system of protocols or elements of digital images, which can be superimposed upon one another. A filter is usually defined as an algorithm that automatically changes digital information processing in a specific ways. A search query in Google can be considered a filter, whereas the results of the application of the filter make up a layer. Traditionally the notion of a filter refers to a selection process. Certain elements are allowed to pass through a filter, and certain are held back. A coffee filter, for example, holds back the coffee grounds and lets the coffee through. With regard to information, filters have often been associated with censoring of information. Only that information which the authorities and experts standing at the top of the hierarchical pyramid decide to be appropriate is allowed to pass down through the filter. Filtering doesn’t have to be negatively connotated. Under the conditions of one-to-many communication and an economy of scarcity of knowledge, parents, teachers, experts, religious authorities and so on have long been responsible in society for performing filtering duties.

Leaders have always had privileged access to information. Information producers and the media have always made decisions about what and how to publish, and what not. To a certain extent, as David Weinberger (Too Big to Know, Basic Books, 2012) has pointed out, these decisions were necessitated by the economy of scarcity that print media and the regime of one-to-many communication were based upon. Not everything that could be known and communicated could be printed. Heavy and costly books could not be made available to everyone everywhere. This economy of scarcity created a hierarchical form of knowledge in which experts and authorities played important roles in the production, distribution and use of information and in which filtering information was necessary. In addition to this, the filtering function of the mass media has long been a topic in media studies, political science, and sociology. Filtering not only brings with it the negative connotations of censorship, but also the positive connotations of selecting appropriate information, guaranteeing the quality of information, and protecting those not in the position to make their own decisions about the use of information. It is within this context that issues such as “sensitive” data, privacy, and data security have arisen. Many of the important and still unresolved ethical, political, and legal issues raised by the digital communication revolution have to do with filtering in one form or the other. No one, however, denies that some kind of filtering is necessary.

In the age of the cloud, big data, and information overload filters no longer derive their function from an economy of scarcity. They are no longer necessarily associated with hierarchy and privilege. They have become a general condition of the possibility of knowing and acting and may be considered presuppositions for accessing and using information in any way whatever. The concept of filter should be understood on a general level as a defining characteristic of mixed reality. Furthermore, the concept of filter is intended to describe what hermeneutics has termed the fore-structures of knowing and what actor-network theory understands by a program of action. Just as the fore-structures of knowing condition the way in which anything appears within a question and as a task for understanding, so does a program of action condition what actors are translated and enrolled into which network. Interpreters are guided by their pre-understandings, just as actors are guided in their networking activities by programs of action. From the point of view of an ontology of mixed reality and an epistemology based on digital media, filters are general conditions of knowledge and action. Filters are a condition of the possibility of knowing and acting in the network society. Whatever options for knowledge and action that are available for any actor are a result of filters and filtering. Out of the endless amount of information in the cloud, filters select a finite set of data. Networking amounts to applying filters. That which results from the application of filters can be called layers.

The information processed by a filter is a layer. A layer is sum of relevant information and possibilities of action delimited and made accessible by a filter. Layers are domains of knowledge and action. The ontology of modernity also recognizes domains. Domains are, for example, nature, society, the mind, art, religion, and science. One of the important theoretical innovations of actor-network theory is to call these domains of reality into question. Bruno Latour (Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) proposes dropping such distinctions altogether and simply speaking of the “collective.” The collective consists not of a domain of material entities under the regime of deterministic causality distinguished from a domain of the social or a domain of the mind. What the moderns distinguished, Latour proposes to mix into one collective composed of networks. Interpreting ANT from the point of view of new media studies permits reintroducing the concept of domains in the sense of layers. Whereas for ANT networks are opposed to domains, we propose redefining domains as layers, whereby layers can be understood as a translation of ANT’s concept of networks from the point of view of new media. If the construction of meaning that hermeneutics places at the center of being is understood as networking in the sense described by ANT, then from the point of view of digital media networking is the construction of layers.

Traditionally it was place, time, and physical embodiment that functioned as primary filters. On the basis of this spatio-temporal filter, physical reality as it appeared within the perceptual capabilities of the located and embodied subject made up the primary layer. We called this the “real world.” Depending on where someone was, when they were there, and who they were, information was available or not, opportunities for action were available or not, other actors were available or not. Under the regime of mixed reality, place, time, and physicality are no longer the primary filters and therefore the “real world” is no longer the privileged layer. If the person herding goats in the Pyrenees has a smartphone, internet access, and the right Apps, they could know and do much the same things that the person standing on the street corner in Lower Manhattan could do. The shepherd in the Pyrenees could initiate stock trading on Wall Street, buy a new suit at Bernie’s, chat with friends living on 5th Ave., and arrange a trip to Las Vegas including hotel and show tickets. The person in New York on the other hand could see photos of Saint-Lizier in the Pyrenees, or even zoom in live over a webcam, identify the goats of the region, order the local cheese, etc. In addition to this, the person in New York could overlay what they are presently seeing and hearing on the corner of Worth and Hogan with information (images, documents, etc.) from the history of the city going back to the time of the “five points,” when the area was a slum full of disease and crime. They would see Lower Manhattan the way it looked in 1827 or in 1930. They could see where historical personages lived and even read their private correspondence. Indeed the entire world of information on all topics such as architecture, art, politics, business, science, culture etc. can be filtered and presented according to different parameters as a particular layer. The opportunities of knowledge and action created by these layers may be more significant and more “real” in their effects than anything known or done under the conditions of space, time, and embodiment alone.

Mixed reality is perhaps best visualized as the cloud. It is characterized by the fact that there is no primary layer and no privileged filter. What is usually termed the “real world,” that is, physical reality with its time-space parameters as opposed to what is called virtual reality does not constitute a privileged filter. The information anyone on the basis of physical presence can perceive, remember, or otherwise access including activities based on this information does not constitute a privileged layer. On the contrary, being limited to the filter of physical presence can be a disadvantage when everyone else has access to digital information. Those living and working in mixed reality know more and can do more with the information than the person who does not have access to the network.

As the name suggests, layers can be stacked, added to each other one on top of the other, and reduced or subtracted from each other. A layer of “gourmet restaurants within a radius of two hundred yards,” for example, could be added to what can be seen from the corner of Worth and Hogan. Filters open up or disclose layers. They add or reduce layers. Filters are questions, they are “matters of concern” (Latour). The search query in Google for gourmet restaurants on the basis of GPS location is a filter. Any question is a filter, whether it be the question of where the nearest gas station is, or Heidegger’s “question of being.” From the point of view of actor-network theory, it may be said that filters are the “programs” of actor-networks, the selectors of information, the codes that relate and steer flows in networks, and guide the processes of translation and enrollment that construct the network. Applying a filter entails all the communicative actions that translate, enroll, and inscribe actors into a particular network. Layers can be seen as the actor-networks that result from the application of filters. In terms of Harrison White’s relational sociology (Identity and Control: A Structural Theory of Social Action, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), actors “switch” between layers and construct their identity by means of the stories that connect these switches together in an ongoing struggle for identity and control. Applying a filter is, of course, not the same thing as starting a search query in Google. This might be a part of what is happening in applying filters and constructing layers, but it is only a part. Applying a filter entails all those activities that ANT describes as translating, enrolling, and inscribing actors into networks. In short: filtering is networking.

Wittgenstein equated the limits of the world with the limits of language. From the perspective of a hermeneutics for the digital age, it could be claimed that the world is the sum of all possible layers. My world is at any time a function of the filters that are being applied in those networks which constitute my identities, personal, social, cultural, and ontological. In terms of sociological theories, basic concepts such as communication (Luhmann), translation (Latour), or transaction (White) can be re-defined as the application of filters. Social actors apply filters and construct layers of information with accompanying opportunities for action. The communicative actions and the interactions that apply filters and construct layers can be seen as the hermeneutics of the digital age. They are the construction of meaning, the networking, the ways in which networks are built, and the ways in which identities are constructed, maintained, and transformed under the conditions of mixed reality.


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