Media Taxonomy

This triple VENN diagram is a particularly nuanced way to represent a taxonomy of media for its ability to show a varied and complex set of relational information. Using assorted icons, textual effects and symbols (see legend) in conjunction with the spatial relationship of the seven distinct areas of the diagram (pure visual (V), tactile (T) and auditory (A); VT, VA, AT; and VTA) as well as the indications of either uni-directional ( --> ) or bi-directional ( <--> ) arrows, this taxonomy is able to demonstrate both conspicuous and obscure facets of media contact in an accessible, yet profound form. More important, however, is this taxonomy’s ability to evoke unique questions and issues surrounding media—its use, integration, interrelations, biases, content, requirements and form—even as it ultimately fails in the scope and accuracy of its endeavor. At this scale, the diagram is obviously far from exhaustive and is more cluttered than it might be if produced in a larger size. Users are asked to view this taxonomy, then, with a measure of latitude in order to both examine the logic of and analyze the information in the layout.

As indicated by the three colored circles, the largest classification taking place in the diagram is between media which are auditory, visual and tactile. Examples of media which are purely any of these three therefore fall in the portion of their circle which is not shared by any other circle. Examples which exhibit two or more of the three primary traits, then, are placed in shared areas accordingly. The uni-directional arrows carry dual meanings and therefore require a degree of contextual reading. They either indicate an example of a media type or a contribution to another media—so while "passenger" is an example of rail service, "sculpture" often contributes to advertising in its form or image. The bi-directional arrows indicate interaction of some sort, either two media (or types of media) which use one another, or two media (or types) which alter one another (such as writing and graffiti). The items in the legend are fairly straightforward: items may either be marked as digital or analog, frequently imposed in the course of contemporary life, as carrying other media within themselves (meta-media), as massively distributed (which is intended as an indication of social power), as using motion, as largely profit-driven, as expensive to either produce or consume, as enhanced by a specialized education and as usually engaged in privately.

In a surface reading of the taxonomy one cannot help but notice the preponderance of profit-motivated media, the swarm of interconnection and prominence of advertising. In a secondary reading, the exceptional status of the arts and naturally-endowed media; subversive, popular media (mp3 and graffiti) and the relative lack of purely tactile media becomes apparent. Deeper readings will draw many of the distinctions, relationships and classifications into question, encouraging the viewer to consider all possible criteria for such things as accessibility, avoidability and motives. This particular taxonomy is thus able to raise some extraordinary questions: about the book’s enhancement by specialized education, for example; or about painting’s cost or use of other media; or about the motive and imposition of news-tickers and telephones.

Finally, of course, it fails; but only after conveying the impossible complexity of its attempt which, ironically, is perhaps its most important function. In failing, taxonomies (especially complicated ones) accentuate the immensity and density of mediated experience by forcing hitherto transparent relationships and effects to the fore. Taxonomies highlight unique commonalities, challenge conventional understandings, expose ideologies and demand an increased awareness of the built environment. By producing and viewing such taxonomies, then, we refine our classification of media while identifying their formal and structural patterns, which ultimately gestures toward the extension of media theory itself.

Peter Adams
Winter 2004