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.
New media are not confined to a purely virtual world of images, representations, and information. New media do not merely transport text, images, video, and audio. They do not “transport” at all, they “mediate” information into artifacts and action in all areas of life. As Norbert Wiener foresaw, all ordered actions are steered by information. Media in the broad sense of information systems are controlling, conditioning, shaping, and informing all aspects of social life. Digital media steer production processes in factories, the behavior of airplanes, ships, and automobiles, financial transactions, logistic systems, and much more. A computer connected to a 3D-printer can produce almost anything, from toys, to weapons, and even organic tissues. Computer models and simulations are replacing directly observable physical, biological, or social systems as the object of research. Offices, laboratories, classrooms, transportation hubs, and public buildings are being redesigned into interfaces that integrate the physical and the virtual in order to accommodate flows of information, interaction, and communication. Not only computer screens and smart phones, but also walls, windows, floors, columns, roads, landscapes, indeed everything, is becoming an “interface” allowing interaction with “intelligent” non-human actors as well as access to digital information and virtual communication. Digital media are being transcoded, as Manovich would say, into social process, cooperative action, and the objects and spaces with which and in which these occur.
Connectivity is an expected and normal part of everyday life, available not only at the workplace, but also at home, in shopping centers, restaurants, schools, public buildings of all kinds, on the road, and all over the world. The “hardware” of the network society is not merely the computer, the laptop, the tablet, or smart phone, but also houses, automobiles, schools, offices, hospitals, clothing (wearable computing), animals, plants, indeed, every “thing” that the world is made of, since there is no limit to what can be outfitted with sensors, connected to networks, and integrated into information and communication systems. Intelligent agents are not only gathering, storing, transporting, and evaluating data of all kinds in enormous quantities, but processing it in order to assist human actors or even make decisions themselves faster and better than human actors can do. Alongside the actors we have hitherto known and accepted as members of society, the digital revolution is creating a world that is populated with “virtual” beings that are playing an ever more important role in constructing the network society and thus in transforming what the very concepts of knowledge, action, and reality mean.
The integration of the real and the virtual worlds has many different names. Experts speak of virtual reality, augmented reality, augmented virtuality, mediated reality, diminished reality, amplified reality, and virtualized reality. Castells speaks of a culture of real virtuality that is characteristic of the global network society, a culture that is “virtual because it is constructed primarily through electronically based, virtual processes of communication. It is real (and not imaginary) because it is our fundamental reality, the material basis on which we live our existence, construct our systems of representation, practice our work, link up with other people, retrieve information, form our opinions, act in politics, and nurture our dreams. This virtuality is our reality.” The term “mixed reality” has gained a certain acceptance as a common term for the integration of the real and the virtual. There are various forms in which this integration takes place. On the one end of the scale, reality is re-presented within an immersive simulation, for example, the popular immersive virtual world “Second Life.” On the other end, digital information is imposed onto the non-digital world, as for example in smart glasses (for example, Google Glass). Mixed reality defines spaces that are both physical and virtual. The concept is useful to define a reality that is more like an interface than a substance, more like a communicative process than a structure. Interfaces allow access to both worlds simultaneously and contiguously.
The digital media revolution is transforming reality into an interface. Interfaces have traditionally been understood as computer monitors, the screens of mobile devices such as tablet computers or smart phones, but they can also be sensors or cameras built into anything whatever; beds, floors, furniture, clothing, automobiles, tools, machines, devices monitoring blood pressure, pulse, movement, etc. The sensors can be connected to each other via the internet to create an “ambient intelligence” or an “internet of things.” The interface is the ensemble of things and information. The interface is the space of mediation, irreducibility (Latour), association, translation, interpretation, and networking.
We propose the interface as model of the real, that is, when the real is considered as mixed reality. Technically, the interface establishes the connection between the physical and the virtual. The interface allows interaction. The interface coordinates physical-virtual networking. It serves much the same purpose as the “horizon” in philosophical hermeneutics, insofar as it permits or restricts the flow of all kinds of information in all directions and to all actors. It defines a hybrid space that is neither real nor virtual, but a mixture of both. Recalling the hermeneutical circle that constructs meaning in the movement from part to whole and from whole to part, the interface allows movement from physical to virtual and from virtual to physical, such that meaning and reality become an indistinguishable mixture of both.
For hermeneutics the part is in the whole, but the whole is only accessible through the part. The concept of horizon blocks any attempt to mistake the part for the whole, that is, to attain closure, totality, and thus stop the ongoing task of interpretation. The horizon distinguishes and unites the part and the whole, but it does this in such a way, that both part and whole are transformed into the interpretation and no longer independently accessible or even analytically distinguishable. In a similar way, the interface distinguishes and unites the physical and the virtual, but it does this in such a way that both are no longer independently accessible or analytically distinguishable. If we can no longer speak of the real and the virtual, of things and signs, of the same or the different, how is mixed reality to be described? What can be distinguished after reality has become an interface is no longer a physical world and a virtual world, but a world made up of layers and filters. Mixed reality is not made up of physical parts and virtual parts, like gin and tonic in a mixed cocktail or atoms and bits as Negroponte thought. The digital media revolution has transformed reality into a mixture of filters and layers.