They do. Not in some abstract way but in a literal sense. They influence people’s actions and how the world is transformed by those very actions, for the most part.
We all put filters in front of us — either voluntarily or imposed by others or society — without even knowing it. With those filters, we go on our everyday business influencing anything we interact with. But what is really a filter? How it influences the world?
Reality is what it is. There are arguments that we don’t have access to it directly but rather interpret it in a certain way based on a filter. A filter could be an ideology, a big idea, or a religion among many things. Scott Adams described this with the example of religion. Imagine two people having two different religions. Their religion gives each person a set of beliefs and a pair of lenses so their behavior and worldview can be formed. One believes there is an afterlife, the other one believes there is nothing. All in all, they are not only experiencing different realities — whatever that may be — but they are acting in peculiar and unpredictable ways depending on the filter they are wearing.
They both agree there are trees and birds and species reproduction and that their credit card will work but they might not believe in evolution or the fact that vaccines work. Culture is a filter, as well as family and friends. They are everywhere so you only get to chose how you gonna use them. Which one do you apply where?
Pre and Post filters
Back in the day goods and services were distributed in a pretty straightforward way. There were these huge behemoths, — record labels, magazines, bookstores, etc. — these large entities responsible for what goes out and reaches the public. They could do this due to the tyranny of shelf space. The limitation of physical space was a real thing thus excluding a large part of products, showcasing just a few. Whoever had control over the shelf space, had the power.
On the other hand, with the internet dominating every facet of our lives, we suddenly have access to every kind of niche interest or obsession of ours. Physical space is no longer an issue since everything is online and distribution is on demand. Someone — somewhere needs that book with techniques on how to grow that rare type of flower from a Pacific island in their backyard or find 70’s jam rock from Zambia. These could have only existed on the internet and not in some big physical book or record store.
This was illustrated in great detail in Chris Anderson’s book The Longer Long Tail**.** In the book, he talks about how the means of distribution and discoverability have massively expanded the availability of goods and services of every niche out there. There is no longer a need to have a single entity dictating what is worth releasing to the public. Instead, there are many small, and large entities providing anything you can think of.
While the theory behind the long tail concept makes perfect sense, the way to achieve it is not so evident. With the internet going mainstream and with the whole world going online, probably the biggest innovation was the application of the search engine. This is the backbone of the long tail since its existence is crucial for the long tail to be able to work. A search engine scouts the internet, cut’s through the noise and delivers the thing we are searching for, which makes all the niche products and communities depend on this in order to be found. Without filters like search engines, everything in the long tail is just noise and chaos, impossible to decipher.
Chris Anderson distinguishes the above phenomenon into pre-filters and post-filters. A single entity, call it a magazine, record label, book store or radio station is acting more like a pre-filter, meaning the filtering of what you get is done before the release. It was done for you, without your consent. A post-filter would be something like the internet that makes everything available, no matter how niche or weird it is, letting the market and the people decide what they want and what is good for them.
In an interview, Frank Zappa talked about how the music industry was in better shape when record labels were run by money-driven people with suits and cigars than hippies with a taste that knew better than the average listener what they should listen to. This phenomenon is closely tied with the pre and post*-*filters we talked about earlier.
The hippies with taste acted like a pre-filter that decided what went for production and eventually what would reach the public. They were gatekeepers, in a sense, acting for the listener’s “best interest”. On the other hand, the money-driven cigar holders would let anything go – including junk – for the sole purpose of expected profit. The more they pushed to production and released, the higher the chances of something becoming a hit, hence making lots of “green”. They assigned the market to be in charge of that while letting post-filters do the work.
All that is good. No matter how weird our taste in music or books is, we can find them. And not only that but find like-minded people. Lots of them. All this while forming communities online and finding out trends and fads rise and fall within a niche. ‘Mainstream in a niche bubble’ as it was said in Anderson’s book.
Although great it is not without its issues. Back in the day, we had a scarcity problem, meaning there weren’t enough different opinions and tastes, and niches at our disposal. They did exist but they weren’t discoverable. If you had a savvy friend, you were lucky.
Now we have a problem of abundance. We found our niche, we found our people. More people means more information to share and consume. Suddenly our niche became huge. So hence the need for a second, additional personal filter to be placed on top of existing ones.
One pre-personal filter that we put on ourselves unconsciously is authority figures. We see these influencers being productive and looking like they are crushing it every day and hesitate to form our own opinions. A cult of personality arises and our opinions start to look alike. Now the border of pre and post-filters becomes blurry, making it more difficult to see. Authorities and influencers became pre-filters within a bubble that owes its existence to post-filters.
Another pre-personal filter is our own biases. We don’t and often can’t listen to things we disagree with and have the tendency to consume content that aligns with our preconceived notions making us all the more biased. We are locked in the famous “echo chamber”. The ultimate pre-filter.
One post-personal filter could be taking in anything you read or hear without resistance and flushing out what is not important later. Read and listen to different opinions and try to think an argument like you are on the opposing side(or the one you are disagreeing with). Even in a niche field, there could be noise since people within a niche are more likely to obsess over crazy details and argue about them — the famous “tabs vs spaces” is still fun to watch in the programming world. Like in Zappa’s analogy, in the same way, the cigars holders with suits, released everything letting the market decide what would become a hit, you expose yourself to opposing views, making conversation about them and flushing out what didn’t make the cut. What remains creates or updates your filter.
We put a personal filter on things either we want it or not. These pre and post-filters rule and shape our world. We put them on ourselves and then they work by themselves on autopilot. You set them up once and they last a lifetime. A lifetime indeed If you don’t consciously make an effort to re-program them or replace them. Not having a filter is simply not an option.