Media Taxonomy

Why taxonomize? Attempting to outline, rigorously, what one knows will reveal, inevitably, what one doesn’t know. This does not mean that what one does not know cannot be known, but it is the curious impasse of (at least media) taxonomy that the more one knows the more one seems not to know. A humble interrogation of conventional distinctions leads not only to the expected phenomena of hybrid media, mixed-media, but also to distinctions that seem utterly at odds with other distinctions – it is as though our vocabulary is not specific enough to parcel the manifold modes of distinction. Of course, hope holds out, and given enough patience, a rigorous map of media still seems possible – the taxonomy holds the intrinsic appeal of order, and so exerts perhaps the tightest vise on the prevailing intellect. It is a great motivator; the Hypercube project is proof enough.

The Hypercube project itself indicates, somewhat unexpectedly, the other great payoff of taxonomy – pointing precisely to where there is nothing. Assessing media as a cross-pollinating system, a system of constituent variables engendering (engineering) – in various combinations – different ‘media events,’ inevitably suggests space yet to be pollinated. So, perhaps, a black and white video game is in order, and so on. Yet the Hypercube project, by instituting a theoretical framework for tracking ‘media events’ in relation to each other, portends to a greater ambition. Rather than merely attempt a self-consciously subjective scientism cum art – a single person’s, or finite group’s, best attempt at parsing the valences of media – the project might use its meta-theoretical framework – hardwired into algorithms – to explore not just how media might be categorized, but to trace how people themselves enact these categories, somewhat like how a telescope might trace the movement of stars. Given that a ‘media event’ is as much mediated by the subject as the media itself, a properly inter-subjective taxonomy would record, in a profound sense, ways of talking about media that are not extant qualia of the media itself.

In my more humble taxonomy, I look to map the indigenous spacio-temporal characteristics of assorted media experiences. I divide Space and Time each into two broad categories, “pragmatic” and “depicted,” pragmatic loosely capturing the relation of the subject to the media in terms of either space or time, depicted loosely mapping ways in which time and space are represented within the media itself. Pragmatic Time I took to have two pertinent aspects, duration and uniqueness, duration (open or closed) recording whether there is an expected terminus to the media encounter, uniqueness recording the relative reproducibility of the media event itself as temporal artifact – the most mortal events utterly irreproducible.

Depicted Time of media I divided into two camps – those that depict a static moment, and those depict more than one moment. Of this second, dynamic group, there are some media that present a certain sequence of moments, determined by the media itself – call this narrative – and there other media that allow the ‘audience’ to freely choose their experience. A footnote describes problems with these distinctions.

Pragmatic Space is divided into two glosses, aspect and uniqueness. Aspect asks whether the spatial relation of audience with media is open or closed, determined or free. Uniqueness looks this time to the spatial uniqueness of a media event – so television, while temporally unique, is hardly spatially unique. My catalog of depicted space is the least rigorous; I don’t have the mathematical background to correctly parse the space/time dimensional synthesis, and so I tried only roughly to account for music dimensionally, and so on. Here only do various media appear in more than one category – the possibility of both three-dimensional and four dimensional representational television (soap-opera vs. cartoon, for instance) is too obvious to ignore. Time, probably fallaciously, is considered a dimension of its own, so a photograph depicts three dimensions, and a cartoon depicts three (two visual dimension, one temporal dimension). I left the question of seriality untouched.

This taxonomy is, at best, a beginning. I’m not even sure I’ve applied my own technologies consistently. But I think it points to an interesting axis of documentation in any account of media.

Adam Weg
Winter 2004