Harold Adams Innis, a political economist, is widely credited with initiating an important discourse on media from a distinctly Canadian perspective. He directly influenced Marshall McLuhan and continues to be a central figure in communications theory.
Innis was born in 1894 near Hamilton, Ontario, graduated from McMaster just before WW1 and saw front-line duty in France. His war experience, during which he saw Canadian soldiers used as cannon-fodder by the British, marked him for life: not only did he become a dedicated pacifist, he became interested in the way marginalized, colonial nations developed a sense of culture in the shadow of larger, empire-building nations.
After the war, Innis studied political economy at the University of Chicago where he did his Ph.D. thesis on the Canadian Pacific Railway. As a young professor at the University of Toronto, Innis was concerned that Canadians were being deluged with American material, so he set about to remedy that deficit. For his first book, The History of the Fur Trade in Canada, he retraced many of the routes of the early fur traders. He went on to write books on the cod fisheries, the dairy industry, and the wheat industry.
During his work on political economy, Innis developed the staples thesis, which asserted that the Canadian economy tended to rely on the production of single commodities: fur, lumber, mining, agriculture, energy. As a result, Canada found itself in a dependent, and vulnerable relationship to the major manufacturing nations, first Britain, then the U.S.
From the end of WWII until his death in 1952, Innis worked steadily on an investigation of the social history of communication, studying the communication media of the last 4000 years. From the thousand page manuscript which he left at his death came his two pioneering communications works: Empire and Communications (1950), and The Bias of Communication (1951).
In his Introduction to The Bias of Commmunication, Marshall McLuhan suggests that reading Innis shows us a new way to read history:
Most writers are occupied in providing accounts of the content of philosophy, science, libraries, empires, and religions. Innis invites us instead to consider the formalities of power exerted by these structures in their mutual interaction. He approaches each of these forms of organized power as exercising a particular kind of force upon each of the other components in the complex. (ix)
These organized forms of power are in process, and defined by their interactions. "They explain themselves by their behaviour in a historic action." In this, Innis' method anticipates the historical archeology and documentation of Michel Foucault.
McLuhan appreciated the way Innis used the technological events of history to test the accuracy of both that history and the lessons we have learned from it. Readers discover that "Innis never repeats himself, but that he never ceases to test the action of oral forms of knowledge and social organization in different social contexts. Innis tests the oral form as it reacts in many different written cultures, just as he tests the effects of time-structured institutions in their varieties of contact with space-oriented societies" (x). Innis would, for example, be fascinated by the Nisga'a treaty negotiations in British Columbia, where a time-biased, marginalized and predominantly oral culture is attempting to communicate with a space-biased culture transfixed by the rule of written law.
Innis’ central focus is the social history of communication media; he believed that the relative stability of cultures depends on the balance and proportion of their media. To begin our inquiry into this area, he suggests we ask three basic questions:
For Innis, a key to social change is found in the development of communication media. He claims that each medium embodies a bias in terms of the organization and control of information. Any empire or society is generally concerned with duration over time and extension in space.
Time-biased media, such as stone and clay, are durable and heavy. Since they are difficult to move, they do not encourage territorial expansion; however, since they have a long life, they do encourage the extension of empire over time. Innis associated these media with the customary, the sacred, and the moral. Time-biased media facilitate the development of social hierarchies, as archetypally exemplified by ancient Egypt. For Innis, speech is a time-biased medium.
Space-biased media are light and portable; they can be transported over large distances. They are associated with secular and territorial societies; they facilitate the expansion of empire over space. Paper is such a medium; it is readily transported, but has a relatively short lifespan.
David Godfrey summarizes Innis’ distinction as follows:
For Innis, the organization of empires seems to follow two major models. The first model is militaristic and concerned with the conquest of space. The second model is religious and concerned with the conquest of time. Comparatively, the media that have supported the military conquering of space have been lighter, so that the constraints of long distances could be lessened. Those media that supported theocratic empires had relative durability as a major characteristic so that they could support the concepts of eternal life and endless dynasties. (ix)
It was Innis’ conviction that stable societies were able to achieve a balance between time- and space-biased communications media. He also believed that change came from the margins of society, since people on the margins invariably developed their own media. The new media allow those on the periphery to develop and consolidate power, and ultimately to challenge the authority of the centre. Latin written on parchment, the medium of the Christian Church, was attacked through the secular medium of vernaculars written on paper.
Oral communication, speech, was considered by Innis to be time-biased because it requires the relative stability of community for face-to-face contact. Knowledge passed down orally depends on a lineage of transmission, often associated with ancestors, and ratified by human contact. In his writings, Innis is forthright in his own bias that the oral tradition is inherently more flexible and humanistic than the written tradition, which he found rigid and impersonal in contrast.
When fascism comes to America, it will come in the form of democracy.
Innis extended the economic concept of monopoly to include culture and politics. If we consider that a society has a network of communications systems, we can see that there are key junctures or nodal points where significant information is stored, and from where it is transmitted to other parts of the system. (Arthur Kroker suggests that Innis "sought to explore the interstices of the technological habitat.") Traditionally, the universities have attempted to monopolize certain kinds of information, as have professional associations such as doctors or engineers or lawyers, as have governments. As both Innis and Michel Foucault have demonstrated, individuals or groups who control access to those points wield great power. Those who monopolize knowledge are also in a position to define what is legitimate knowledge. The organized church comes immediately to mind, as does insider trading. The scientific community lobbies not only for a pre-eminent status for the objectivity of knowledge, but also advocates a rigid method for obtaining that knowledge.
Monopolies of knowledge derive their power from several sources:
Monopolies of knowledge tend to polarize societies into a mass of the ignorant and a knowledge elite. Monopolies of knowledge encourage centralization of power. Those who control knowledge have the power to define reality. Think of the media blackout during the Gulf War, or (to use Foucault's example) how confession is used to convey the moral teachings of the Roman Church.
Finally, however, monopolies of knowledge promote tendencies toward instability. Competitors and critics are always looking for ways to subvert monopoly power, and perhaps gain it for themselves. Nuclear proliferation is one such example of this instability. Foucault, throughout his writings on the dynamic between knowledge and power, insisted that neither is, in fact, a commodity even though it is often treated as such--one cannot own power; power is a process which must continually be reasserted for its continuance. He draws attention to the ways in which those who are ruled contribute to the empowerment of their rulers.
Innis’ perspective is based on an examination of how new media arise in the first place. In order to understand any medium, we must attend not only to its physical characteristics, but also to the way in which it is employed and institutionalized. Innis sees a dialectical relationship between society and technology: they influence one another mutually. According to this view, certain social forms and situations encourage the development of new media; these media, operating within existing situations, react back on society to produce a new cycle of change. It would thus be a mistake to consider Innis a technological determinist: he does not believe that technology drives social evolution. He does, however, appreciate the considerable power invested in communications technologies and monopolies of knowledge to shape culture. Instability resulting from a lack of balance between time- and space-biased media, and agitation from the margins of the empire can equally drive social change. In 2000, the rapid adoption of music-sharing software like Napster provoked an immediate reaction from both the recording industry and the law-makers. New regulations encouraged the development of new (gnu) technologies.
For Innis, a survival strategy requires that we take "persistent action at strategic points against American imperialism in all its attractive disguises...(b)y attempting constructive efforts to expose the cultural possibilities of various media of communication and to develop them along lines free from commercialism." Thus, in the final analysis, Innis can be seen as a technological realist, mediating the technological humanism of McLuhan--who emphasized the creative possibilities of each new medium--and the vision of technological dependency articulated by George Grant--for whom technology becomes the locus of human domination.
[Harold Adams Innis, "The Bias of Communication" in The Bias of Communication. 1951. Introduction by Marshall McLuhan. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964)]
In this chapter of his history of Western civilizations, H.A. Innis considers the "significance of communication to the rise and decline of cultural traits" (33). He establishes a dialectic between media with a time-bias and those with a space-bias:
According to its characteristics [a medium of communication] may be better suited to transportation, or to the dissemination of knowledge over time than over space, particularly if the medium is heavy and durable and not suited to transportation, or to the dissemination of knowledge over space than over time, particularly if the medium is light and easily transported.
He concludes from this that the "relative emphasis on time or space will imply a bias of significance to the culture in which it is embedded" (33). Empires are, in other words, characterized by the media they use most effectively, partially because that’s how others come to know of their achievements. The remainder of the chapter attempts to demonstrate how these biases influenced the rise and fall of empires from the Egyptians, Sumerians and Babylonians, to the 20th Century North American and European empires.
The relative lightness or heaviness of the medium under consideration is not always a reliable indication of its particular bias. If we compare parchment with papyrus or paper, for example, weight is not really a decisive element. It is more useful to think of the bias of media as related to the ability of the message to survive transmission and have an impact over space or over time. It is not the heaviness of stone that necessarily makes it a time-biased medium, but rather its ability to survive the elements and natural disasters so that it may still communicate its message centuries or millennia later. The pyramids, temples, bridges, and cathedrals of the world are still able to communicate something of their essential meaning to us today, if only we know how to decode their empire-building messages. Those messages which have lasted have tended to bias our view of the history of empires:
Writing on clay and on stone has been preserved more effectively than that on papyrus. Since durable commodities emphasize time and continuity, studies of civilization such as Toynbee’s tend to have a bias toward religion and to show a neglect of problems of space, notably administration and law (33-4).
We know about the history of empires largely from the time-biased documents that have survived. Innis suggests that the media adopted by a particular civilization will shape the "character of knowledge" transmitted by that culture, not only in the original sending, but also in our eventual reception.
In this idea is the origin of McLuhan’s "the medium is the message." Innis’ analysis can be complex and multi-dimensional because he understands that the longevity of empires depends on their ability to extend themselves over both time and space. It is often a question of balance. For example, he claims that the Egyptian civilization "appears to have been powerfully influenced by the character of the Nile. Utilization of its periodic floods depended on the unified control of an absolute authority." The discovery and adoption of a calendar with the certainty of dates for religious festivals [the sidereal calendar measured time by the movement of the stars] facilitated the establishment of an absolute monarchy and the imposition of the authority of Osiris and Ra, the Nile and the Sun, on upper Egypt. Success of the monarchy in acquiring control over Egypt in terms of space necessitated a concern with problems of continuity over time" (34). The need to manage a flooding river promotes an absolute authority, which is further reinforced by a regular--thus eternal--calendar, which in turn supports the absolute dominance of elemental forces embodied in Osiris and Ra. The invention of the calendar becomes a way to extend an empire over both time and space if the right spin is put on its meaning.
This passage nicely illustrates what McLuhan calls Innis’ "mosaic" approach to developing his ideas. Related elements are juxtaposed, leaving gaps which require the reader to make connections. The result is an "interface"-- "the interaction of substances in a kind mutual irritation," according to McLuhan. "It is the natural form of conversation or dialogue rather than of written discourse. In writing, the tendency is to isolate an aspect of some matter and to direct steady attention upon that aspect. In dialogue there is an equally natural interplay of multiple aspects of any matter. This interplay of aspects can generate insights or discovery" (vii). In this analogy, McLuhan alerts us both to the method Innis uses to engage the cognitive powers of his readers, and the bias both of them share for the oral over the visual.
Over and over, Innis juxtaposes the need for continuity with the need for claiming territory, a balance of concerns central to the enterprise of empire building, and significantly determined by media of communication: "The monopoly of knowledge centering around stone and hieroglyphics was exposed to competition from papyrus as a new and more efficient medium" (35). It is really the "monopolies of knowledge" which are at stake in the longevity of empires. New media threaten to displace the previous monopolies of knowledge, unless those media can be enlisted in the service of the previous power structures. If priests can gain a monopoly on papyrus and writing, then they will gain power relative to the king who depends on stone monuments. The boundaries of the empire shift, expanding and contracting. The shift of perceptions redefines "knowledge," what those in power claim needs to be known. New allegiances are formed. New monopolies created.
In our own time, we have witnessed such shifting monopolies in the delivery of news to the masses from newspapers to radio to television to the internet. Each medium has its bias, a bias which changes in relation to the significance of the others in the consciousness of cultures. The media, Innis tells us, are inter-related in their impact on the survival of empires. "The social revolution involved in a shift from the use of stone to the use of papyrus and the increased importance of the priestly class imposed enormous strains on Egyptian civilization and left it exposed to the inroads of invaders equipped with effective weapons of attack."
Those cultures made powerful through their former monopolies of knowledge based on film, print, or television become vulnerable to the attacks of cultures which make use of new communications technologies. In Fuzzy Logic, Matthew Friedman relates how the EZLN--the revolutionary Zapatista movement of Chiapas, Mexico--uses its website to counteract negative propaganda from the Mexican and United States governments which attempt to distort the nature of this populist revolution.
Innis often returns to the evolving drama of language as an important means of communication. "A flexible alphabet favoured the growth of trade, development of the trading cities of the Phoenicians, and the emergence of smaller nations dependent on distinct languages" (39). The demands of speech were accommodated when vowels were added to written scripts by the Greeks (40). Inevitably, however, the "impact of writing and printing on modern civilization increases the difficulties of understanding a civilization based on the oral tradition" (41).
Juxtaposition of historical observations creates an interface for generating new insights. If we further juxtapose the bias of an empire for a particular set of communications media, how this bias affects our impressions of that empire, and how our own biases influence our observations--then we begin to approximate Innis’ method of media analysis. We can further refine our study of media by focusing on the monopolies of knowledge within any empire, and the potential for marginalized cultures to adopt new technologies in order to gain some leverage against more powerful nations.
Finally, in his provocative essay "Minerva’s Owl," Innis suggests that the richest flowering of an empire comes just before its decline and fall: "Minerva’s Owl begins its flight only in the gathering dusk." Innis reasons that "a monopoly or an oligopoly of knowledge is built up to the point that equilibrium is disturbed" (4). Thus we learn from Innis that all great empires are most vulnerable in the moment of their over-reaching.
Friedman, Matthew. Fuzzy Logic: Dispatches from the Information Revolution. Montréal: Véhicule Press, 1997.
Hissey, Lynne. Introduction to Communication Theory. Burnaby, B.C.: Simon Fraser University, 1988.
Innis, Harold Adams. The Bias of Communication. 1951. Intro. Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Univerity of Toronto Press, 1964.
---. Empire and Communications. 1950. Ed. David Godfrey. Victoria, B.C.: Press Porcepic, 1986.
Kroker, Arthur. Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis / McLuhan / Grant.Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1984.