Dead Media Taxonomy

One of the main purposes of a taxonomy is to provide an easily viewable model of some aspects of a larger, very hard to understand thing. The goal in doing this is to answer some question or another. In what is probably the easiest and standard example of taxonomy – the biological classification consisting of kingdom, genus, species, and other such categories – the question to be answered is any question of the form "How are lifeform X and lifeform Y similar?" To me, the first step in creating a taxonomy of media was to decide what questions I wanted my taxonomy to answer. I did not want to tread the path that seemed most obviously asked for by the assignment – questions of the form "How are medium X and medium Y similar?" – simply because it seemed as though that question had been done enough times, and would probably be done around 40 more with this assignment. So I decided to focus on a different form of question – "What characterizes elements of a given set?" The set I chose, after some deliberation, and, more to the point, after noticing the dead media archive linked to from the course page, was dead media.

My table should mostly be self-explanatory – the horizontal axis contains various dead or dying media, and the vertical one contains characteristics. If the dead medium has a characteristic, an X appears in the relevant box. The characteristics are divided into "Death" and "Life." The life characteristics are ones that concern the nature of the medium – is it auditory, visual, text-based, etc, as well as the current state of the medium – do working models still exist, are there still small groups of people continuing to use the medium. The death characteristics concern various reasons for which a medium could decline.

Because it is the nature of dead media to be somewhat obscure, where I could find a good description of something, I have made the name of that medium a hyperlink to a website dealing with it. Often, this website is the Dead Media Gallery, but occasionally it's something else, where I thought something else was clearer, or where the medium was not listed in the DMG. Obviously, this feature only works on the electronic version of the table, which I added to my digital drop box.

My methodology was fairly simple – I worked my way through the dead media archive, and when I hit something that I thought I knew enough about to at least briefly outline the reasons for its demise, I put it on the chart. Then I put in fields for every cause of death I could think of for it. This approach has two major weaknesses, as I see it. First of all, the taxonomy is limited to dead media that I actually know something about. Since my areas of expertise focus on digital technology, over half of my media fall under the domain of computers or digital technology. That leaves the possibility that there are a lot of dead media that are in an area I know relatively little about – visual arts, for instance, and that the reasons that media die in the visual arts are strikingly different from the reasons digital media die. This leads into the second major weakness, which is that there is no rigorous methodology to my selection of criteria describing each medium. That means that there are very possibly large sets of reasons why a medium could die that I'm not thinking of.

One example that suggest a way in which this taxonomy must evolve in order to be truly useful is a medium I dropped from the final taxonomy, namely the minstrel show. The reason that I dropped it was that, after putting it on the table, I realized that none of its causes of death were shared by any other medium I could think of. That meant that it didn't quite fit with the rest of the taxonomy, so I dropped it. But this is a rather unsatisfying solution – it seems like there must be other media that died for the same reasons as minstrelsy. (Unless minstrelsy is a genre, not a medium… but I'm skeptical of that claim)

Already, some trends can be discerned, though. There seem to be two broad categories of dead media – media that were dead on arrival (DivX, the CED, Vectrex), and media that had a good run but eventually went out of style (Atari, player pianos, carrier pigeons). Media that were D.O.A. seem, in general, not to have any followers today either – they mostly just flopped, but there are one or two exceptions. (Captain Power is probably a D.O.A. medium, but it still has a number of fans).

Another question that needs to be raised is whether a few of these qualify as media. Most notably, I'm not sure if specific operating systems or video game platforms are media or not. My inclination is obviously to say that they are – particularly in the case of early instances, where crossover applications were rare. For instance, although today an Xbox game and a Playstation 2 game look more or less alike, it is very easy to tell an Atari game from a Vectrex game even looking at a single screenshot – there was no standardized graphics protocol, no standardized sound systems, not even a consensus on what a video game controller should look like. The result is that games for different platforms felt radically different, making them, in my view, different media.

In the end, then, this has to be taken as a first step towards a taxonomy of dead media – for the project to really develop, people with interests and knowledge different from mine would need to take on the project as well, so we can start seeing some different perspectives on dead media, and so we can start getting a more generalized idea of what kills media.

Phil Sandifer
Winter 2004