Non-Evolutionary Media Tree Taxonomy

I chose to employ a hand-drawn evolutionary tree as a classification tool. This is not to imply that some media are more 'evolved' than others, but this type of visual aid makes it easy to illustrate binary distinctions. Here, each node indicates the presence or absence of a trait. After witnessing the grandeur of the n-Dimensional Hypercube today, it appears that most media traits exist somewhere on a scale rather than in terms of mere presence or absence. Still, it is useful to at least begin a discussion of media in terms of simple, binary distinctions before moving on to Hypercubian realms.

In addition to the evolutionary trees, the chart is organized at the root level in a triadic relationship composed of the real (unmediated space), and two sender/receivers. This seemed to be the best place to start, as it illustrates the points of origin of mediated space. In this arrangement, what we traditionally refer to and categorize as media occurs at the point of external representation. That is, an individual or group perceives the real via sense perception which triggers an internal representation, then converts this internal representation to an external form and transmits this form to a third receiver. The third receiver can also function as a sender, as well as sensing the real directly, thereby creating a hybrid signal. The evolutionary trees begin at the line of external representation along four nodes which diagram image, music, words, and multimedia. The particulars of each binary distinction are included on the attached notes, which reference numbers 1-15 on the diagram.

Why Taxonomize?

I may be the last person in the northern hemisphere without a cell phone. I plan to keep it that way. It's not only that it's expensive, or that I have no friends to call, but rather that I view the presence of this device as a constant intrusion – whether it rings or not. Of course, it's always possible to turn off the cell, but then a caller can question why I had the device turned off. To me, this status seems a bit like wearing an electronic collar. Why would I pay $39.95 a month to be sentenced to life on parole?

However, even if I choose not to own a phone, I still receive the social messages and consequences of the cell phone medium. I face greater difficulty in finding a pay phone when I need one, for example. As McLuhan states, by studying media in general, divorced from content, we are considering "…the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the 'message' of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs" (McLuhan 8). Thus, I experience the pattern and scale of the cell phone without ever having to use the device.

If I am indeed experiencing 'psychic and social consequences' from the media in my environment, it might be beneficial to consider what those effects might be. Since these particular effects must stand in relation to a particular cause, the causes must not be lumped together if they are to be contemplated and understood. Therefore, the causes must be separated and classified according to their characteristics. Hence, a taxonomy of media is a useful place to start the classification process, as it allows one to identify the presence or absence of a characteristic and begin to think about a particular medium in a more limited and workable context.

Yet, a taxonomy obviously has its limitations. The tools of taxonomy, whether they be evolutionary trees or Hypercubes, were designed to graph biological and mathematical entities. It is unlikely that these tools can be applied effectively to entities such as radio and TV, which Mcluhan describes as, "… 'fixed charges' on the entire psychic life of the community …"(Mcluhan p21). Given the incongruity between media forms and biological forms, there may be more reasons not to taxonomize than there are reasons for it. Still, in my limited experience of Media Studies so far, it appears that discussions can easily dissolve into a vague 'Theory of Everything' perspective without any clear grounding in particularities. Perhaps a taxonomy, for all its limitations, can supply a small foothold with which to begin an exploration.

Dan Knox
Winter 2004