Media Taxonomy

I thought that I would try one of the lesser-used definitions of medium for my project, “the physical environment or conditions of growth, storage or transport for a living organism.” This definition was deceptively simple. Like language, something so common we think that we have a handle on it already, this definition conjured pictures of an animal in a cage and seemed easy enough to deal with. But, also like the concept of language, this definition proved to be so general that it contained far too many components to deal with in a single two-dimensional picture.

I soon realized that I couldn’t start at the very top of the hierarchal tree for this definition of media. My beginning needed to be a point that had already branched off from things such as humans and germs. Otherwise I would be dealing a near infinite array of media, such as germ cultures for the bacteria and cars, schools and prison for the humans. As the first two drafts of my hierarchal tree proved, I could only fit so much. Thus I whittled the my branch of the environment taxonomy into environments “created by man.” (Although, “created” here could mean a natural environment, left largely in tact, but altered or generally controlled by humans.) This branch also excludes domestic animals. This still left me with more information than I could fit on the page (categories like “environments for rehabilitation” and “sites of domestication”) so I pared even this down to one branch—educational/entertainment environments because it was still fairly broad and it seemed that education and entertainment often overlap when animals are concerned.

High school biology made me instinctually want to create a hierarchal tree around animal groupings, like the taxonomy used by biologists. I soon felt the real division should be along the lines of environment types, not the animals they contained. My two main divisions are categories where organisms enjoy a great deal of freedom versus a small degree of freedom. The idea is that the former provides entertainment/education from a distance and human participation is fairly minimal and the latter involves smaller spaces and blatant human interactions. I then tried to continue with the divisions, adding more specialized categories at each branch. It is important to note that on almost every “end” branch I stopped not because I was at the end but because to take it any further would be impossible. Obviously “flower garden” can be broken down into rose gardens, tulip gardens, etc. and aquariums could be divided into brackish, marine, tropical, etc.

Before undertaking this assignment I considered the hierarchal tree to be a fairly effective media to illustrate the concept of taxonomy but after creating my own tree I’m much more skeptical. First, designing this tree elucidated how arbitrary can be. Anyone could see my small diagram and insist that I should have organized it according to animal types of land regions. Also I already explained my decision to omit domestic animals because I feel they would be more appropriate for a separate category. Here one could argue with my decision that animals such as fish, birds and snakes don’t count as domestic. Someone might feel strongly that these animals belong in the same categories as cats and dogs. Finally I have to admit that is highly plausible that faults in my own thinking have left gaping holes in what might fir onto this chart. Taxonomy is not necessarily the natural grouping of anything and the hierarchal tree is almost a childish, stick figure of what the mapping of taxonomy should look like.

The enormous scope of what there is to include in a diagram of this type is mind-boggling. This assignment makes it easier to understand why a three-dimensional might be more accurate than its two-dimensional counterpart—and why perhaps even this model can’t assess enough features to adequate. There are simply far too many criteria for classification. I am certainly more sympathetic to an idea that was repeated several times during the presentation of the taxonomic hypercube, “Taxonomy is a good springboard for discussion and thought.” An item’s place on taxonomy, and even the overall organization of the taxonomy’s structure, is really an argument for a position. Instead of providing a concrete map of how things are related to each other it serves as a starting point for discussing how things might be related to each other.

Hillary Schroeder
Winter 2004