Media Taxonomy

What follows is better characterized as a case-study of my failure to compose a taxonomy of media than any sort of taxonomy of media itself. As troubling as that may sound, I do not think this is a bankrupture entirely without merit, as I hope we shall see. It limps over the "three pages, double-spaced" mark as a matter of course, given its lack of accompanying media- er, diagrams, and the like.

My first and fatal misstep was in deciding to err on the side of the novel, as opposed to continuing the strictly quantitative work introduced by Dr. Mitchell in his own sample taxonomic sketch. (A flaw that, as it will soon become apparent, eventually lands me right back into the lap of this original method.) I felt it would be rather pedestrian of me to simply "extend" from his model, or feebly substitute for his examples a series of analogues; innocently, he had so thoroughly covered the field as it could be understood by a junior aesthetician as myself that anything continuing his stripe of inquiry would necessarily be a reduction of an already reductive construction. Searching, then, for a pre-existing system that could cleverly "represent" the media taxonomy as a whole, blow it out as oppose to collapse it in (yet, still in an suitably "chartable" way), I briefly pursued the idea of exploiting towards these ends the terms associated with judging a scotch whiskey, particularly: character (referring to blend or, here, the blending of media); nose (or aroma, relating to the vapors or traces of the medium); legs (referring to strength and viscosity, the slipperiness and staying power of the thing); palate (the pop, the flavor, the very visceral experience of consumption); and finish (that which remains even when the experience of consumption has ended). At once, however- and despite a thorough catalogue of existing spirits to guide me - I found the idea of matching up media with bottled years from disparate distilleries so "precious" I couldn't go on with it; however, the liquid imagery stuck for a time, and I turned to the ploy of judging media in terms of their "solvency", that is, in terms of their ability to dissolve all other media into them. This initially seemed like it would be a straightforward and rewarding pursuit- it was easy enough to see, for example, that film could dissolve opera- as in Ulrike Ottinger's The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press or Milos Forman's Amadeus - if, of course, one were to suggest the dissolution occurs on a somewhat superficial level. Would it not rather be more fitting to ask if the "spirit" of opera could be co-opted by film? But what is opera's spirit, and how is it to be judged? [1] If I were to look for recourse in a quantitative analysis akin to Mitchell's- i.e., one that sized up dimensionalities, materialities, and their ilk- it was far too possible certain media would only coincidentally appear to dissolve or be dissolvable by other media, and betray no real connection between them. While television certainly seems to be dissolving film- in, let's say, the use of "wide-screen" filming techniques in E.R. - and film, in its own right, seems to dissolve television, in its product placement and nesting of advertisements in the coming attractions, there was no way I knew of to draw up these elastic issues (in what I considered to be a trim, respectable fashion) on table or on graph. The only thing that could result was an extended, text-based discussion- very much, in fact, like what you're reading now.

What followed, then, was an admission of defeat, and a retreat back into a more conventional world of number-relationships. If we are to recognize McLuhan as the first ward of media theory, it might prove useful, I speculated, to tap into the so-called "extension of man" that is the very "central intelligence" of the "global village" [2]: namely, of course, the Internet. Despite Gretchen Soderlund's warning- put forth in her Mass Media and Society seminar- that invoking the Internet was the eternal cop-out of present-day students of media, I developed the idea of visiting a variety of web servers and gauging what is the actual interest of the (plugged-in) global community in specific media by tallying the number of hits each medium summoned forth- those media I employed were virtually the same Dr. Mitchell sketched, as they seemed to be a representative sample: theater, cinema, television, photography, architecture, painting, sculpture, and memory. I added opera and replaced writing with books, as I wanted, as much as was conceivably possible, to ensure it was the communicative/broadcasting institution of writing that was conjured in each instance, as opposed to the mere act of placing typographical symbols on paper. [3] For similar reasons, I replaced speech with rhetoric. I do not consider the results worthy of their own appendix, and so instead I will produce them now, in order of resulting hits (see chart above).

One question that may be posed to this rendering is whether or not these results are reproducible. And the not insignificant answer is, no, they are not. Even as I was compiling these numbers new sites citing the medium titles employed here were surely being constructed and destroyed. This, then, is a snapshot of a moment in time that, like any moment in time, will never appear in just this way again. Ultimately, however, I scarcely think this matters, given the remarkable coherence between the columns. The idea of the project was to craft a way to categorize media in relation to the level of concern people treat them with individually—in other words, how often is this medium on your mind? The Internet acting, under some modes of thinking, as the virtual memory of a large part of humankind, my stark columns were designed to record how far to the fore and rear these subjects were on a Tuesday morning in 2004. Nevertheless, I picked three engines that I supposed would produce contrasting results: the inclusive juggernaut Google, and two smaller systems dedicated solely to searching indices of specific collections of discussion groups. Google I took to be a roughly representative sample of all people on-line; MSN's groups are known to be more "family-oriented" in content and configuration, while Yahoo!'s groups are decidedly more lurid, as a general rule. In spite of all, however, the results imply that all three greatly favor books- the mechanical medium the electronic age was supposed to supplant- while equally despairing of sculpture and rhetoric. [4] Meanwhile, memory, photography, and television all dwell within the succeeding three levels; without seeking to draw too wild and too convenient a conclusion, I think this may be traceable to the need to preserve communal (family or community) memories. Obviously, as regards memory , but also in the consideration of photographs- for the majority of Americans, if not global citizens, these are pictured primarily in terms of the scrapbook. It is a little more difficult to draw television into this argument, though its persistence (unlike a film, television broadcasts in general will never stop) [5] puts it in line with the descent and perpetuation of the species, as programs and channels feed off one another, and advertisements further implicate in this meditation the outside world. This, then, begs questions I cannot answer, but am happy enough to be able to pose: does the internet naturally prefer media with which it seems aligned- i.e., like writing, it is an ur -medium, unlike speech, it is speechless- and, if so, what does this tell us about its relationship with memory, photography, and television?

What is missing from this account, unfortunately, is what I had conceived as the pièce de resistance, a fourth spin around the park involving the infamous "Hot or Not?" website. Allow me to familiarize the reader with the content and concept of this site, if he or she is not already aware. Two options are presented to the visitor: one may either flip through the rich collection of photographs people have willingly (it is presumed) submitted of themselves, rating each as you go on a scale of one to ten, contributing to a composite score for each photograph; or, as the owner of an image of yourself you have personally uploaded, you may scan through other people's images in the manner mentioned above, but choose now to "meet" them; if the owner of the desired image agrees to "meet" you back, then you are given one another's contact information, and friendship and eventually love presumably come to bloom.

The important thing here is that when shuffling through the photos with the intention of "meeting" people, you have as accomplices to the photographic image a treasure-trove of "keywords" the image-holder has attached, ostensibly indicating his or her interests: hence, I had planned to chart the occurrence of "keywords" like opera, theater, cinema, etc., against the individuals' ratings on the one-to-ten "hotness" scale, in order to group media according to the importance they hold to individuals in terms of these individuals' socially-sanctioned attractiveness. Sadly (very sadly, I should say), the option to view photos with the intention to "meet" people (which allows you access to individuals' keywords) is not in any way connected to the option that allows you to view individuals' ratings. Therefore, with what may be tens of thousands of images in the memory-banks of the system, there is no way to cross-reference the two. [6] In spite of these odds, and unwilling to abandon the latent sociological potential in the site altogether, [7] I decided it would still be plausible, using the "meet" option, and sorting the photos by keyword (an available option), to manually count the number of images corresponding to the cited media. I knew this was technically possible, as- so experience proves- the 46 users who include sculpture as a keyword follow one another in a series that, in fact, loops. This proved true as well for the 85 architects, the 111 opera aficionados, the 295 fans of painting, and the 465 television nuts. The computer froze after I had viewed only 987 people citing photography, and after successfully flipping through the first 1000 cinema buffs, I realized this was a ridiculous proposition, and stopped.

The experience, however, was not totally wasted; for in a very real and only daintily hyperbolic way, I feel I truly understood, for a few moments, what "Leonard" from Memento must have experienced, in his fictional movie-character sort of way, all the time. Pictures flipped past at a fleet and steady tempo, and disengaging myself from the tallying my conscious mind unfailingly performed, I sunk into a state of restless contemplation in which any knowledge of these people- or any people, for that matter- dissolved into a murky pattern of repeating ciphers; time and again I wondered, have I seen this person before? Often I would think I actually recognized someone, someone perhaps I had known in California, or in Iowa, but the interminable clicking of my thumb on the mouse made it impossible to go back for another look. And always was I on the lookout for the one, the photograph of the first opera fan I had seen, whose return would signal that I had completed the series; and with each passing picture, the details of this face I had tried so hard to ingrain on my mind faded, and changed, until I didn't know who was who and what I was and became forever trapped in this joyless flood of boy and girl-faced shit.

Jon Roberts
Winter 2004