Friday, July 21, 2017

Herbert Marshall McLuhan is famed for having one of the most poignant predictions of the 20th century. The philosopher and intellectual foresaw the birth of the internet 35 years before it happened. 
On the day that would have been McLuhan's 106th birthday he is being honoured with a Google Doodle. 

Who was Marshall McLuhan?

Born in Canada in 1911, McLuhan studied at the University of Manitoba and University of Cambridge before becoming a lecturer at the University of Toronto. He rose to prominence in the 1960s for his work as a media theorist and for coining the term "global village", which was a prescient vision of the internet age. 
His theories were met with controversy in academic circles throughout the 1970s and after his death in 1980. Then in 1989, the internet was born, and McLuhan was looked upon with renewed interest.   
Marshall McLuhan 
Marshall McLuhan 

How did McLuhan predict the internet age?

McLuhan's preeminent theory was his idea that human history could be divided into four eras: the acoustic age, the literary age, the print age and the electronic age. He outlined the concept in a 1962 book called The Gutenberg Galaxy, which was released just as the television was starting to become popular. 
He predicted the world was entering the fourth, electronic age, which would be characterised by a community of people brought together by technology.
He called it the "global village" and said it would be an age when everyone had access to the same information through technology. The "global village" could be understood to be the internet.
In his follow-up book, Understanding Media, he expanded the theory to show the method of communication rather than the information itself would come to be the most influential fact of the electronic age. 
He soon became a TV personality, making regular appearances to explain his theory of why "the medium is the message".
He became the most publicised English teacher of the 20th century, a prestige that only grew with the realisation of his vision of the "computer as a research and communication instrument". 
In the 21st century people have a world of information at their finger tips on smartphones, tablets and laptops. The internet has facilitated a breaking down of global barriers and the democratisation of knowledge.
McLuhan's predictions caused a frenzy in the US, with high profile magazines and authors rallying around him. He was the subject of a Tom Wolfe article titled "What if he is right?" that was published in New York Magazine. 
His theory influenced the likes of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister's father, and artist Andy Warhol. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

a 2015 student paper

here's another example......  



The study of communications “is the study of techniques to allow for the reliable transmission of information.” In order to understand the study of communications, it is essential to consider two well-known Canadian communication theorists, Harold Adams Innis and Herbert Marshall McLuhan. First, Harold Innis was a Canadian professor of political economy, he has written several books on media and communication theories (Empire and Communications). However, he is well-known for the thesis he proposes in his book Empire and Communications; in order to preserve time and occupy space empires had to have a balance between both time-biased media and space-biased media. In a nutshell his thesis was how media influences the rise and fall of empires.
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was another communication theorist and philosopher. He is the author of many influential books such as Medium is the Message, The Mechanical Bride, The Guttenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. McLuhan is well-known for the idea of this “global village” which he described as an “electronic nervous system (the media) was rapidly integrating the planet.” In this paper an analysis on Innis’ thesis, on the use of media and the influence it has on empires such as the Egyptians and Babylonians and how McLuhan’s idea of the global village can reflect Innis’ work.
In order to understand Innis’ thesis it is essential to go over certain terms such as space and time biased media. Space-biased media is defined as the diffusion of knowledge throughout great distance. Examples of space-biased media are paper and writing. The positive characteristics of space-biased media are that they are light and can be spread over the world with ease. Therefore, this is why space-biased media is associated with the idea expansion of an empire, the growth of states’ authorities and decentralization institutions -distribution of the administrative functions of (a central authority) among several local authorities. Certain negative characteristics are that space-biased media does not last long because paper degrades which evidently means that it is not reliable in preserving past events in the world’s history. On the other hand time-biased media is meant to be a source which will last throughout to future generations. Examples of time-biased media are clay, stone and oral culture which Innis associates to religion and education. The positive characteristics of time-biased media is that they are durable meaning that they will last a long time unlike space-biased media. These terms will form the basis for Innis’ thesis – in order to preserve time and occupy space; empires had to juggle both of them in order to strive for success. Therefore, in order to demonstrate if Innis’ thesis is in fact correct it is essential to go over some of the past empires which he discusses in Empire and Communications.
The first empire in question is one on the Nile, Egypt. The Nile was the heart of Egypt; the Egyptians depended on it for their economic income. The Nile was seen as “the principle of order and centralization” (Innis, p. 12). The invention of a writing system called hieroglyphs (pictorial) in Egypt came about by the social situations of the time. Innis states the fact that for a long time Egypt was an absolute monarchy. Therefore, there was always one ruler in this type of monarchy. During the reign of absolute monarchy in Egypt pyramids played an important religious role. Examining the hieroglyphs in these pyramids points to their true function as a funerary ritual in order to aid the pharaoh or key Egyptian figure makes his way to the afterlife. All of this history has transcended itself by time-biased media because hieroglyphs were carved into stone tablets which have been preserved to this very day. Therefore, this means that their civilization has survived until this very day. However, after the abolition of absolute monarchy a democratic system had been put in place (Innes, p.15). As a result of this political shift, Egypt went from being a time-biased media by using stone as the medium of communication to a more space-biased media with the use of papyrus sheets as being the new medium. When papyrus made its way to being the dominant medium of communication it “expanded its control over space but also required the priestly class to share power with an emerging administrative bureaucracy.” The perfect balance in creating an empire was to fuse both “religion and political organizations” (Innis, p. 25). This balance which Innis discusses is called the monopolies of knowledge.
After Innis introduced his time and space-biased medias he came up with the monopolies of knowledge concept. This concept was created from the hostility between both time and space-biased medias, where one of these medias dominated the other in one civilization which lead to the creation of monopolies of knowledge. Innis refers to knowledge as being literature and sciences like important information such as economic records and census data. He basically stated that those who had total “control of knowledge through dominant media of a given civilization had total control of reality.” Therefore, those who are in control of knowledge are able tell the people of a given civilization what knowledge actually is. A good example of people in control of knowledge is the Nazi party propaganda master Joseph Goebbels. The reason why the Nazis had the power over the people was because they were the ones defining knowledge. With the use of propaganda the Nazi party fed lies to the German people. To illustrate their use of propaganda they used poster, radio messages and books in order to show the evil of the Jewish population.
Herbert Marshall McLuhan –“a technological determinist”- (Sharon Zechowski) can be seen as one of Harold Innis’ disciples. McLuhan has introduced many famous concepts such as hot and cold media, the “Medium is the Message” and the notion of the global village. In order to understand his famous dictum, the global village it is essential to shed light on his hot and cool media theory.
Hot media is exclusive meaning that there is “low participation from the viewer because of their high resolution” (Regent University). Therefore, what this means is that there is not much information needed to be filled in by the user. An example of hot media can be the radio because it does not require a lot of participation by its listeners. Whereas cool media is inclusive, this means that there is the need for high participation because of their low resolution. The reason why cool media is “highly participatory” is because the viewer must focus in order to “fill in the blanks” that the medium is portraying. The best example of cool media is the television because it requires the viewers to participate in order to understand the message which is being sent over the medium in question which is the television.
Marshall McLuhan put his theory of hot and cool media into practice by analyzing one of the most important political events in American history, the 1960 Kennedy and Nixon debates. John F. Kennedy used cool media, the television in order to attract the audience. Therefore, the television was not a medium that used one of the senses but two of them, seeing and hearing. Kennedy was known for his good looks hence it was a good idea to portray him on the television. On the other hand, Richard Nixon’s’ electoral campaign thought that Nixon would be better fit for the radio which is a hot medium. Nixon was known for his debates as being one of his key methods in getting the listeners attention.
Another key concept introduced by McLuhan is one of his favourite and most used expressions, “The Medium is the Message.” This concept is hard to define but in the simplest form it can be defined as “the medium being the greatest impact upon the socio-cultural environment rather than the information that is being transmitted.” Examples of different mediums include the radio, newspapers, computers, television, books, movies and much more. A good example that best illustrates “The Medium is the Message” can be observed between both comic books and films. McLuhan explains that both these mediums are interpreted by our vision. While watching movies, viewers require minimal amount of effort in order to understand what they are watching – hence the visual message is clear. Contrary, in comic books, the reader must focus their vision more in order to pick out the visual message. The reason why comic books require the reader to pay closer attention is because they do not show as much detail as movies do. Comic books are made up of still pictures whereas movies are made up of movement and expression. In both the cases, the focus is on the medium and the message it sends as opposed to the content of the film or comic.
An analysis of McLuhan’s key theories comes all down to this, the global village. The global village can be defined as “an electronic nervous system (media) that was shaping the planet.” For example, any event that was occurring in one part of the world could be shared with the world in seconds. Therefore, what McLuhan is trying to demonstrate is how small our world has become because of our technology ruled world. It has become the size of a village, where everyone knows everything about everyone. In McLuhan’s book The Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man sheds light on the effects media had on European culture. He talks about how Guttenberg and how the invention of the printing presses shaped both European culture and people. Guttenberg can be seen as one of the key innovators who created a medium that enabled people to communicate throughout the world. There is so much information in the world, both trivial and historical. The global village concept is proof of that. A real life example of the global village put in practice can be seen when the FIFA World Cup plays on television, radio and the internet. People from all across the world will know who won the tournament regardless if they have the necessary communications or not. Information travels fast and as a result has defined our world as the global village.
In my opinion, some of McLuhan’s concepts are applicable to our world. The three concepts analyzed above (hot and cool media, “Medium is the Message” and the global village) are all terms that can be seen in both present and past societies. First off, the whole notion of “the Medium is the Message” can be applied to todays with the use of a good example, the iPod. In this example, we see that the iPod message is neither through the music it plays nor the videos but is the way that the iPod (medium) has revolutionized the world. The iPod has changed our society and how we live our lives. Therefore, the iPod can be seen as the “extension of ourselves”. What this extension means is that the iPod demonstrates people’s individuality. The hot and cool media concepts can be applied to our lives. The example given above about the radio being a hot media and the television being cool media can be applied to our generation. The radio fills our minds with information without having the listener participate, all they do is listening and the message sinks in. On the other hand, we have cool media such as the television which requires a lot of attention from the viewer in order for them to fill in the blanks that this medium is conveying. When watching the television a lot of our senses are being used such as hearing and sight. His last concept, the global village can be seen all across the world today. A good example that illustrates the negative connotations of the evolution of a global village might lead to “cultural domination by more developed countries.” One of the main problems with the possible effects associated with the global village is that powerful countries like the United States of America’s media will “eventually have control the cultural standards by which the rest of the world will have to live.”
After analyzing both Innis and McLuhan it is essential to have gathered the key concepts which they explore and elaborate. It is also important to see these concepts in practice and how they have affected and will keep affecting the way we live in our global village.




Works Cited
"Innis, Harold Adams (1894-1952) Summary | BookRags.com." BookRags.com | Study Guides, Lesson Plans, Book Summaries and more. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. .

Innis, Harold A.. Empire and Communications. 2r.e. ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972. Print.
"Marshall McLuhan, The Global Village." The Internet. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. .
Puno, Ryan. "COM105: The Medium is the Message by Marshall McLuhan." Beginning to See the Light - A Shining Brainless Beacon. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. mcluhan>.
"Medium is the Message." Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. .

"Monopolies of Knowledge - Innis - Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan Library and Archives Canada." Welcome to the LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA website | Bienvenue au site Web BIBLIOTHÈQUE ET ARCHIVES CANADA. N.p., 3 July 2007. Web. 1 Nov. 2010. .
Zechowski, Sharon. "MCLUHAN, MARSHALL - The Museum of Broadcast Communications." The Museum of Broadcast Communications. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2010. .

"Marshall McLuhan." Regent University - A Leading Global Christian University. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2010. .

"Time- and Space-Bias - Innis - Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan – Library and Archives Canada." Welcome to the LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA website | Bienvenue au site Web
"Understanding the Implications of a Global Village | Student Pulse." Academic Articles by Students. Get Published. | Student Pulse. N.p., 20 Nov. 2009. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. .

"What Is Communications." Communications Group at the University of Toronto. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. =50&temid=62>.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

another excellent example of a student essay on the Innis and McLuhan topic

by Tricia Lapointe 

Theories of Communications - the work of Innis and McLuhan

To understand cultures more effectively, we should consider the renowned Canadian Media Theorists - Harold Adams Innis and Herbert Marshall McLuhan. 

Their studies and publications, analyzed the impact of technological Communications and Media upon cultures.

At the time, Innis’s and McLuhan’s theories were rather revolutionary, and they are, remarkably, still enthusiastically studied today, largely because they both acutely predicted how our current electronic technologies have come to play a central, in fact, deterministic role in how our culture is formed.

Innis was a Canadian political economy professor who had notably written Empire and Communications, now one of the major works in Communication Theory. Innis` central thesis, argues that society is shaped by the influence of primary media technologies within its culture. He developed the concept, in which mediums - have either : a time or space bias. 

Media which emphasizes space, promotes an Empire`s expansion of its culture beyond its own borders. Those mediums have to be light in order to travel great distances, such as paper or papyrus, which allowed printed or written communication to dominate. Those mediums centralized the information, but it`s not a particularly sustainable system, because of its medias fragility. On the other hand, time bias, favours the longevity of a culture, by utilizing mediums which are much more durable and therefore will more likely persist over time. For instance, Imperial buildings or even spoken oral traditions, are mediums which are more durable and therefore much more long lasting.  Also, buildings and sculptures are an important medium to a society, because they can accurately expresses the cultures values or aspirations, and the context within which they were created. As an example, even ancient, fallen classical civilizations, such as the Egyptian, Greek or Roman Empires, have indelibly left the fingerprints of their culture - through the monuments or values that still are expressed and studied even today. Innis emphasizes that the key of a successful Empire - was to maintain a balance between both the time and space biases.

Also, the climate of animosity between time bias and space bias mediums cause what he called, “a monopolies of knowledge”.  

Innis explains this concept, by claiming that a “knowledge elite” forms, and centralizes power through media within a society - one which is likely ignorant of the controlling mechanism, and of this form of centralized knowledge.

In history, centralized knowledge has typically been used to dominate. A modern example would be, Joseph Stalin`s totalitarian communist regime in Russia (c 1941 to 1953). Stalin actively used propaganda and fear throughout the community to maintain his absolute power. The propaganda was widely broadcast through mediums such as radio, posters, newspapers or cinema. so as to maintain his regime, and because society had no other resource of knowledge, or effective recourse they could not meaningfully contradict, or even avoid Stalin’s politically pervasive and dominant view, people were thus controlled, co-opted and imprisoned.

In this relatively simple way, he monopolized information in Russia ( Google ? ) Therefore, it seems rather clear that the ones who command knowledge, ultimately have the power to define reality.

This monopoly contributes to a deep instability in the culture because the ones who are deprived of this power “will search for new competing media to undercut existing power structures, and create new patterns of association and form of knowledge” (Beale) In other words, they will establish a new media to compete with the one already in place to gain more knowledge and more power by restructuring the culture. 
   
Moreover, in Innis`s work, he mentions the notion of non-military cultural invasion - and notes his concern about Canadian`s culture, which is profoundly influenced and even eclipsed by larger empires, such as United States or Great Britain, a dominant, over-reaching "Pax Britannica or Pax Americana". 

This non-military cultural invasion occurs in a society, when there is an incursion or imposition of another larger culture which didn`t use military force per se to situate itself within the host culture. It`s through the technological communications or media products which most often facilitates this expansionism - of the dominant empire as well as the ensuing cultural control it affords.

For instance, in our own Canadian culture, we are greatly influenced by the United States "culture" whether it's music, TV shows or movies. The American world view play a defining role in the way Canadian`s culture is shaped.  However, today with the Internet and the world wide web, it`s an obvious concept that a culture might more readily influence another because information is shared much more rapidly throughout the world.

During the Innis era, (1930 -5o's), a broad, world wide, invasive communication technology was not developed. The principal technology used at this time was the radio, and to a lesser degree newspapers. Therefore, it was quite an innovative notion, that a culture could be invaded by a greater empire without the use of physical force, through the agency of media.Today, such an observation might be labeled as rather obvious, and the invasion itself, might be seen as benign, like Quarter Pounders in the Forbidden City.

Interestingly, the dominant effects of media on a society - generally aren't perceived by those people who actually live in the culture. The main cause is seemingly - because they are submerged in it, and thus too close to see its actual impact. Therefore, they lack perspective, or an objective view to identify the consequences of media technologies on their lives. 

Take as an obvious example, the longer term effects of Social Media like Facebook and Twitter's impact on our ability to interpersonally communicate. Social change is clearly influenced by the communication technologies and the media of choice in a society.

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was deeply influenced by Innis`s works, but he developed other, now renowned concepts, independently. The famous dictum "the Medium is the Message" is one of them. 

In order to understand this particular concept, we have to understand how McLuhan defines the words medium and message. For McLuhan, a medium is an extension of ourselves. It`s how we perceive, how we know the world with our senses, the media is in fact, the information.

McLuhan went further, noting that the technology creates an imbalance between the individual`s senses and this influences the fragility of the society. He criticized electronic media because they didn't simulate only one sense, but all the five human senses. Also, he characterizes the message as a change which a new invention has on the individual. Therefore, the mechanism of the medium is the message - is the change which emerges from our sensory experiences; everything we create, and therefore all our ideas and innovations shape this "medium".

Our perceptions of the shifting shape of society - due to a presence of emerging products and mediums, and the recognition of their effects by constantly re-shaping culture. The anticipation these new "devices", should allow increased access to information/power. The upside, at least theoretically, is that the public will be more prepared, more informed, the down side is that there will be a rise of what is called the "digerati", those who control the means of communication, who will, as Karl Marx warned 100 years ago, control the means of production. As a result, they will influence the evolution of the medium, one hopes to serve societies broader interests, rather than their own.
        
Furthermore, the extension thesis leads to another concept, " hot and cool media "which qualified the sensorial participation of the audience. The qualification depends on the amount of information the media, which expands to one sense, expresses. It also influences the level of the viewer`s participation. The hot media such as radio, print, photography, film and painting is characterized as high definition because it requires a lot of information. As a result, the audience don`t need to get involve. Whereas, cool media like the telephone or the television gives less information to enable the viewer to complete the experience. Due to this low participation, it allows them to be distracted by other mediums.
The phrase, "the Global Village" introduces a new way to see the wider effects of technology in people`s lives. The village, represents people living in a shared community who communicate their village concerns and affairs electronically. The global village theory suggests that the 19th century model of Nation States and territorial borders, has been dramatically diminished because the communication of information is now spread instantaneously throughout the world. This communication is disclosed rapidly though electronic technology in a similar speed of our own senses. This suggests that information is spread in the same amount of time globally than in a same village. As a result there are is no more limitations of physical space or location. 

Everyone, is everywhere, simultaneously. 

The global village concept, proposes that global issues and concerns can and now does include everyone in human affairs, as were all linked together in our global village. 

It sounds like the ideal to include everyone in this whole community. As human beings, we can`t all have the same feeling of belonging to this global community. The inclusion of every human is impossible, at least at this time.We have all different way to experiment with our senses and therefore distinct interpretations of the world. There will be exclusion of those who don`t share the same values and those who participate differently to the movement of this global connectivity. 

Those communication theories allow us to better examine how our culture is shaped and influenced by technology. Is our culture balanced between the space and time bias? With the rise of the Internet and Social Media the way we communicate has completely changed. 

Gradually, the human contact in communications are compromised by these technologies. People communicate with their surroundings virtually, through computers, cell phones or tablets. Those technologies mostly favour space bias, and the consequence, is there is less oral tradition and human contact in communication and, instead of reading books and literature that encourage imagination which enriches knowledge and intellectual growth, people rely on social media to know the world.  People seldom realize that communicating solely through devices degrades human interaction and that virtual mediums diminish our ability to empathize, because we become enamoured by the devices, and are too close to see the effects.

Bibliography

Beale, Nigel. Harold Innis: Empire and Communications. http://literarytourist.com/2006/03/innis%E2%80%99-empire-and-communications-reviewed/ Web (October 2, 2013) 
Federman, Mark. What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?. http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/article_mediumisthemessage.htm Web (October 9, 2013) 
Harold Adams Innis: The Bias of Communications & Monopolies of power. http://www.media-studies.ca/articles/innis.htm Web (October 2, 2013) 
Mullen, Megan.Space Bias/Time Bias: Harold Innis, Empire and Communications. http://classmaterials.blogspot.ca/  Web (October 2, 2013) 
Munday, Roderick. Marshall McLuhan declared that “the medium is the message.” What did he mean and does this notion have any value?   http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Students/ram0202.html  Web (October 9, 2013) 
Symes, Benjamin. Marshall McLuhan`s 'Global Village'. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Students/bas9401.html   Web (October 9, 2013) 

Friday, February 18, 2011

NOTE. these links may no longer work, alas.
here are the links for our class lectures notes circa 2011, the files are massive, the downloads can take hours as there are thousands of images and hundreds of pages of text. They are all working as of Feb. 2011, but there is no guarantee that they'll work forever. 

They're intended to be an adjunct to, but not a substitute for, our actual lectures. 

I hope they help, my great thanks to Anthony P, for fetching them all up.

Friday, January 28, 2011

some excellent reference material for the McLuhan and Innis essay

Megan Mullen

Harold Adams Innis introduced his major contributions to communication scholarship gradually, perhaps not even realizing until near the end of his life that he even had ideas to contribute to this nascent field. Reviewing Innis’s work, as well as what has been written about him since his death in 1952, I am aware of how much my thinking has been influenced by him. But unlike many influential theorists, Innis’s most powerful ideas are stated subtly, often embedded in lengthy histories full of arcane detail. So I don’t always remember to credit him directly when spouting off notions about connections between the printing press and modern-day forms of slavery, or between local historians and the rise of internet genealogy sites. Yet I should cite various essays and I certainly should cite Empire and Communications. I am confronted constantly by evidence that the conditions Innis identified as key to the success and longevity of empires define twenty-first-century life.

Empire and Communications is a seminal book.1 Its meticulous examination of civilizations from ancient history to the early twentieth century consumed years of Innis’s life, as he looked to support his thesis that media technologies are the critical influences in the rise and fall of empires. He explains that “the concepts of time and space reflect the significance of media to civilization. . . . Materials that emphasize time favour decentralization and hierarchical types of institutions, while those that emphasize space favour centralization and systems of government less hierarchical in character” (pp. 26–27). Too often, though, students and casual scholars retain the space bias/time bias distinction without following it through to the critical point: that it is essential for both of these biases to be present in any enduring civilization and to function in tandem—for that is where the cultural and economic links that allow empires to prosper are forged. As Innis goes on to explain: “Large-scale political organizations such as empires . . . have tended to flourish under conditions in which civilization reflects the influence of more than one medium and in which the bias of one medium towards decentralization is offset by the bias of another medium towards centralization” (p. 27).

In the case of ancient Egypt, Innis sees scribal power, the development and use of writing systems, checked by religious adherence to oral tradition. He sees Egyptian monarchs as having been extremely powerful internally because of their connectedness to religious beliefs, but he also uses this to account for the nation’s limited success at empire building. His initial contrast is with Babylonia, where secular monarchies and a written code of law kept in check the religious practices of smaller city-states within the empire. The balance was even more apparent in ancient Greece, as Innis writes:

The strength of the oral tradition and the relative simplicity of the alphabet checked the possible development of a highly specialized profession of scribes and the growth of a monopoly of the priesthood over education. A military aristocracy restricted the influence of a priestly class and poets imposed control over public opinion. The Greeks had no Bible with a sacred literature attempting to give reasons and coherence to the scheme of things, making dogmatic assertions and strangling science in infancy. Without a sacred book and a powerful priesthood the ties of religion were weakened and rational philosophy was developed by the ablest minds to answer the demand for generalizations acceptable to everyone (p. 88).

The Greek empire did fall, of course—but not before building a legacy of art and ideas that would leave its mark on cultures the world over until our own day. Innis’s time/space bias concept, developed in later work of which Empire and Communications is the most important statement, makes a fine complement to his earlier nation- or empire-focused “staples theory” of economics, in which control over geographic territory is understood as being gained and held through an unequal balance of trade. In the history of his native Canada, for example, Innis saw that the export-import relationship of unprocessed pelts to finished fur coats had represented a net financial loss for the exporter of the pelts. But in later years, the export-import relationship of pulp and paper to print publications (books, newspapers, magazines) came to represent, in addition to financial loss, a lost opportunity for cultural development, as defining ideas and forms of expression increasingly were brought in from elsewhere. This phenomenon troubled Innis throughout much of his career, and his writings on this subject posed questions for future scholars to apply to media Innis never even knew.

Since his death, and especially since the 1980s, Innis’s work has been reinvigorated by communication scholars who have used it in fashioning both a materialist approach to colonialism and an interdisciplinary approach to the history of media. Scholars in his native Canada have looked to his work for insight into the problem of cultural incursions from the United States. But North American media scholars more generally look to Innis as something of a middle ground between scientific study of the media in the behaviorist tradition that developed here in the mid-twentieth century and the sometimes impenetrable concepts associated with European cultural studies and theories of postmodernism. Innis’s writings may be lengthy and overly detailed, but they prove understandable and applicable in a variety of modern-day contexts, particularly for nations whose identities solidified during the industrial era. One might well claim that the American empire has been Innis’s best theorized, even though he did not live to witness its most revealing manifestations.

Innis and Canada

Before examining what Innis’s theoretical work reveals about the role of empire in the twenty-first century generally, it is important to look briefly at Canada specifically, the nation and cultural context in which his ideas were formed. The view from north of the forty-ninth parallel lent Innis some of his greatest insight into the formation of empires—especially the information empires of Great Britain and the United States, which have dominated modern society.

Innis worked throughout his life, in various capacities, for a variety of government commissions and bureaus, always in the interest of strengthening Canada’s intellectual and cultural backbone. But he avoided what he considered token gestures of patriotism, perhaps seeing them as emulating the commercially supported messages that emanated from the U.S. media empire. As Charles Acland writes, Innis presents a “case for Canada” that, when he begins to discuss culture more explicitly, becomes a critique of lost cultural potential rather than an argument for national partisanship.2 Innis shared a common concern that Canada risked losing (or perhaps never attaining) the cultural cohesiveness it needed to function as a nation. Compared with Great Britain and the United States, there was a gap to be filled— perhaps artificially—by public funding.3

Canadian cultural studies scholar Jody Berland explores this theme in a 1995 essay, echoing Innis’s doubt (especially as he expressed it later in his life) whether Canada would be able to escape its history as a staples economy, even in the very different time coming—what came to be called “the information age.” She writes that, with all Canada’s publicly funded cultural institutions, “we are left with a constellation of national bureaucracies that empower an abstract collective identity without necessarily empowering the actual citizens in whose name they speak.”4 Berland, like other recent theorists, cites the regional, cultural, and linguistic disparities highlighted by Quebec, indigenous peoples, recent immigrants, and others as posing intractable questions about the nationalist project. Innis and Berland together suggest a Canadian nationalist empire (white, European, Anglophone) that is, itself, subordinate to a much larger U.S. cultural empire.

Addressing and representing cultural diversity by national and international media systems inevitably raises thorny questions around the concept of empire. This idea is underdeveloped in Innis’s writings on the American empire and the role of newer media technologies. But he alludes to it clearly throughout his discussions of earlier empires. The strengths he saw in both Babylonia and Greece, for instance, relate to their maintenance of local cultures through oral tradition and ritual even as they centralized control through codified law and the spread of knowledge via simple written documents. In other words, there are multiple tiers in which Innis’s staples theory applies to information: exporting raw materials (from paper pulp to indigenous stories) and importing them after processing by a more powerful external entity (whether U.S. broadcast networks or the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] itself, as it provides programming to indigenous peoples).

Canada’s commercial producers, thanks perhaps to the “Canadian content” guidelines imposed by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, operate with a deliberate awareness of cultural diversity uncommon in the United States, though the various groups that make up the Canadian population have unequal influence over cultural messages. Furthermore, while Canadian airwaves and cable lines continue to be filled with U.S.–origin content, Canada has assumed a significant role of its own in media production and export. In comparison with the United States, Canada remains a marginal player in the world’s information economy. But as the divide between developed nations and developing nations (including a number of other former colonies) widens, Canada is holding its own.

This owes something to Innis’s having opened the discussion in the first half of the twentieth century. I also credit some of his contemporaries, including early nationalist literary critics such as E. K. Brown, John Sutherland, and, later, Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood. And I credit Canadian artists, notably the Group of Seven, who brought the vivid forms and color of the Canadian landscape into museums, homes, and college classrooms. Acland has pointed out that Innis did not spend much time reading literature or cultivating an appreciation for the arts generally—leaving these interests to his wife, Mary Quayle Innis. So I feel that more recent discussions of Canadian nationalism owe a debt as equal to the broad characterizations of the infrastructure made by Innis and his followers as to those who have been able to describe the country’s unique and concrete attributes.

Innis and North America Writ Large

Although my first encounter with Innis was reading The Bias of Communication (1951) for a graduate course, I was spending more time studying the literary critics at that stage. My understanding of Innis today owes a great deal to two U.S. scholars I encountered after my career shifted to media history: the late James Carey and Daniel Czitrom. Both writers, one a journalism scholar and one a historian, discussed Innis in books published in the 1980s, three decades after he died. Both recognized the importance to Innis’s work of Canada as a specific place. And both understood how Innis uniquely addressed the intersections of geography and communication technologies that shaped civilizations in North America.5

Carey credits Innis with a theory of imperialism grounded in real historical circumstances. According to Innis, “There would be no transformation of the great society into the great community by way of disinterested technology but only in terms of the ways in which knowledge and culture were monopolized by particular groups” (p. 152). Carey explains the impact of place on Innis’s intellectual formation—perhaps comprehending it even more than Innis himself had. In an essay subtitled “A Tribute to Innis,” he ponders the influence on Innis’s thought of the years he spent studying at the University of Chicago, especially as he shifted away from the pure staples=based economic theory of his early career.6

Chicago communication sociologists including Charles Cooley and Robert Park were early pioneers of the notion that organic societies, wherein individuals held unique and meaningful roles, were giving way to an alienating industrial scenario. They saw the association of industrial society with social progress as a potentially destructive misconception. Carey highlights Innis’s affinity with the Chicago sociologists by noting that “they characterized communication as the entire process whereby a culture is brought into existence, maintained in time, and sedimented into institutions. Therefore, they saw communication in the envelope of art, architecture, custom and ritual, and, above all, politics.”7 However, as U.S. sociology (and hence communication studies) acquired a more scientific, functional, and behaviorist bent, the divergence with Innis’s ideas could not be missed. Carey thus tried to shift attention back toward Innis’s status as a Canadian and its influence on his work.

For his part, Czitrom cites the Chicago School sociologists as one influence on Innis, but he focuses more on economist Thorstein Veblen. I would have to agree. While it is likely that exposure to the nascent subfield of communication sociology associated with the Chicago School nudged Innis toward a later awareness of how relevant his economic theories were to the study of communication technologies, other connections are more tenuous. Perhaps Innis took note of the Chicago School’s focus on the effects of industrial technology on human consciousness, but I believe he was more keenly aware of the economic factors that brought those technologies into being and caused them to develop differently in different places.

Veblen’s ideas about social stratification, especially when projected on an international scale, proved a natural draw for Innis. Czitrom points out that “Veblen’s assault on neoclassical economics challenged the notion that economic laws were universal: timeless and true for all places.”8 Such a notion would, of course, become manifest in Innis’s Canada-grounded theory of economic history, through which we can see how both older and newer colonial powers relegated those native to the colonized nations (indigenous peoples as well as later-generation immigrants) to an inferior cultural status. This has been true of direct political power as well as of formal efforts to generate appreciation for forms of cultural expression.

Innis and Contemporary Media

Both Carey and Czitrom appreciated Innis’s later work, in which he shifted application of his economic theories from physical commodities (staples) such as furs, cod, and lumber to the more conceptual commodity of information. Thinking about media history as a history of empire building offers a frame—and a justification—for the ways I approach history in my own research. As a television historian whose work has depended heavily on research in local communities, incorporating oral history and archival methods, Innis’s concepts of space and time biases, and the dynamic interplay between them, make a great deal of sense to me. Most established histories of television in North America focus on the major networks (both broadcast and cable) and their technological and economic means of delivering programming to communities or regions. There is a clear emphasis on space bias in this approach. But it is at the local level that viewing habits, preferences, and practices are established and maintained. The local, which leans toward a time bias, plays an essential role in what will define television at a national, continental, or global level as well.

This notion has been put forth in part by several scholars through their conceptualizations of television, which they describe variously as an “electronic hearth” (Cecilia Tichi), a “cultural forum” (Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch), and having a “bardic” role (John Fiske and John Hartley).9 All of these suggest a function of television as social mediator or common ground, hearkening back to oral culture traditions. This function has also been identified in some work done under the rubric of reception studies or audience analysis. Innis surely would agree that this role of television speaks to a time bias. Yet seldom does it come across just how much television’s agenda-setting function—which Innis would associate with the space bias—depends on its capacity to be articulated in ways specific to local communities. In other words, for television to contribute to centralizing “monopolies of knowledge,” as it does in powerful ways, it needs to be embedded within local cultures as well. Here, the time and space biases clearly work together—not unlike the religion/government synchrony Innis saw in the enduring empires of past millennia.

Innis had some experience with radio, but he barely knew of television at the time of his death (CBC television broadcasts would arrive a month later). His remarks on radio at the end of Empire and Communications hint at an association of radio with oral culture (p. 196). But, as Czitrom speculates, for Innis radio “presaged a return to oral tradition only in a shallow sense.”10 In spite of any origins in oral culture,the ease of transporting messages over space—including national borders—subordinates any local traditions that might form around shared listening or viewing experiences. Czitrom further points out, as do other scholars, that the literal selling of units of time centralizes control of any messages at the place where payment is received. Paul Heyer elaborates further in a recent biography of Innis: “What he suggests but does not explore is that such media [as commercial radio and television] exacerbate the spatial-bias inherent in print by extending the influence of metropolitan centers of power, in the guise of providing greater access and democratizing knowledge. They tend to perpetuate modes of domination—especially in the case of the influence of American mass media on smaller nations, such as Canada—that in many ways resemble what took place in previous epochs.”11 However much one might debate claims of television’s biases when giving consideration to its ritual aspects and broadcasting’s roots in oral tradition, television’s sheer colonizing power leaves little doubt as to its space bias. Not only has U.S. television dominated North America for half a century, constantly channeling audiences’ attention toward consumer products, the extremely low marginal costs of its distribution have allowed it to be a forceful cultural presence virtually worldwide—including in places where the existence of some U.S. products otherwise would be superfluous and perhaps unwelcome.

To me, though, there is even less question as to where Innis would place the internet on the time-bias/space-bias media continuum. In discussing newspapers, especially those that arose in the United States during the nineteenth century, he questioned the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment out of concern that its stress on literacy and print-based media would create monopolies of knowledge, in contrast to the more balanced efforts at democracy he saw in the Greek empire. Where many scholars would see the spread of literacy and the rise of the penny press during the nineteenth century as heralding a democratization of information, Innis believed these phenomena took control of information away from communities and delivered it to business interests in large U.S. cities. This surely was exacerbated by the large-scale relocation from farms and rural communities to factories and urban areas—and from a lifestyle determined by family and community needs to one dictated by a time clock. The recent history of news and its various delivery technologies bears out Innis’s notion, but it is epitomized by recent developments with the internet.

The origins of the internet and world wide web parallel those of commercial radio in that both represent a sort of communitarian takeover of technologies first defined for military use. In Inventing American Broadcasting (1987), Susan Douglas has documented the role teenage “amateurs” played in turning radio into a news and entertainment medium, and other scholars have chronicled and theorized ways in which various contemporary facets of the internet arose out of endeavors like Usenet and The WELL during the 1990s. Nonetheless, I believe that if Innis were alive today, he would be calling attention to the shift away from the internet’s short-term boost to oral and communitarian modes of communication. Since at least the mid-1990s, this kind of momentum—with its empowerment of grass-roots organizations and self-publishing individuals—has been steadily giving way to corporate buyouts of successful websites and the various forms of e-commerce (both licit and illicit). As early as 1993, when Mosaic, the first successful graphical web browser, was released, popular internet analyst Clifford Stoll expressed concern that the new medium would be given over to deception and hucksterism.

Of course there is a ritual dimension to the internet even today, just as there has been with newspapers, television, and other media. The chat rooms remain, and a plethora of social networking sites have emerged. And, in a rather different vein, scholars too numerous to list have noted the parallels between modern advertisers and the priests and shamans of other ages and civilizations. Their messages guide our cultural rites, and their brand logos are our totems. Nonetheless these ritual aspects speak to the same cultural goal as they did with earlier media: to channel belief systems toward consumption, which ultimately feeds the space-consuming centers of media influence. As American media messages (and those of other developed nations) grow ever more influential, such false rituals and totems replace more traditional (and time-binding) ones all over the world, helping to build a cultural empire dedicated to commercial goals.

Moreover, as Catherine Frost explains, the predominance of English on the internet ensures that the English-language empire begun by the British and perpetuated by the United States will continue. Frost writes that Innis “worried that reading the written word was an isolating experience.” And of course isolation is antithetical to communitarian goals. She goes on to note that “although it can support instantaneous change, this is not the Internet’s primary use or advantage. By reinforcing the written word in a physically and temporally isolated environment, the Internet displays some of the same alienating tendencies as written media.”12

Frost credits the internet with being vast and flexible enough to accommodate alternative uses—certainly more than broadcast or cable television. She credits conventions such as hypertext with the capacity to “break down the linear communications experience necessitated by the written word” into a “user-defined” and “multi-associative” approach to information. She also credits its decentralized form of control with allowing its content to literally be other users. Frost sees the internet as offering a new way of having something to say that is inherently more user-driven than earlier media. But this too is problematic, as she makes clear, in that “not only does it lack physical durability, but it also compounds the modern problem of impermanence. Because it provides a way to constantly update information, the Internet is constantly making the information we have obsolete, and the problem of impermanence that Innis associated with modern media reaches new heights with the Internet.”13 It seems that history grows less relevant with each passing day.

In unpacking the term “information superhighway,” coined by former U.S. vice president Al Gore, Heather Menzies suggests that the “transmission model” (or space bias) for the internet probably was inevitable, given its origins in the U.S. media and defense industries. “In the absence of a clear and meaningful policy commitment towards a mixed-model approach to communication in the era of instant digital connectivity . . . it also seems clear that in the late 1990s the commercial, transmission model was poised to enclose the internet as an alternative infrastructure, retooling and/or containing it as a niche within the larger commercial sphere, rather like Community Access Cable.”14 This sentiment is echoed by Edward Comor when he observes that, in spite of their capacity for counterhegemonic information, “these technologies are being developed and implemented to enable capitalist interests to expand their reach and improve efficiencies.”15 Rupert Murdoch’s 2005 acquisition of the popular social networking site MySpace is a perfect example of how an internet application intended for interpersonal and group communication has become a way of accessing consumer data and using it to target a broad mass of potential consumers more effectively. Consensus seems to be that the internet is rapidly heading down the same path of commercialism and empire building as its media forebears.

My college students, at least some of them, like to consider themselves “post-television” (they say they don’t have time to watch anymore). They also find discussions of advertising influences tiresome, claiming that we, collectively, chose to be surrounded by commercial messages. And they feel that we have the power to stop those messages at any time—if we really wanted to, that is. They accept the fact of having to put up with advertising messages received via newer networked technologies (including cell phones and certain features of the internet, such as social networking and instant messaging, but not e-mail). And they greatly appreciate that now internet users can subscribe to services that will provide news of current events only within preselected categories. The convenience appeal here is to avoid sifting through ever-increasing amounts of information simply to stay informed. Who could blame them for this? And yet the news cliques emerging in this scenario are buttressed by increasingly narrow consumer target groups.

But my students (again, at least some of them) claim that ads are okay if they are for things they actually need and use. And the students want to be directed through the clutter to access these more desirable messages. Could they be right? Will groups defined by increasingly narrow information-seeking behaviors, and refined by commercial interests, become the “nations” of the future? If this is to be the case, perhaps these “nations” will be more cohesive and involve less identity contestation than those that exist today. It is a frightening prospect to my mind, since discussions of identity necessarily involve efforts to communicate across thorny cultural divisions. In an era of globalization, will we actually be losing our ability to communicate across cultures, even within our own national borders?

The Future of the American Media Empire?

Is it the ultimate triumph of advertisers that young people have grown so blasé about commercially motivated messages? As the German philosopher Goethe is often quoted as saying, “None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.” But are we all just becoming mediated drones? Or are we witnessing the emergence of a generation possessing a degree of control over media influence not seen previously? If the latter, perhaps it indicates a continuing balance of space and time biases that will keep the U.S. media empire in power for a long time to come. What would Innis say?

While our modern technologies can still be rather heavy (television sets, mainframe computers), their messages are weightless. Electronic and digital messages travel over great distances (even through outer space) in split seconds, so by Innis’s definition these media have a space bias and thus are conducive to empire building. And yet they are held in check by a continual emergence of new user-driven behaviors. This is more the case with the internet than with earlier media, because of its lower barriers to entry for those with access to the technology. Yet the hegemonic process through which new internet applications fall out of favor or are bought out by commercial interests is as regular and predictable as ever. It just moves faster.

Who could dispute that first television and now the internet have been major culprits in building and sustaining cultural empires? And why should we be surprised that this is ongoing? One need only think about that gap between developed nations, where most residents have easy access to the latest media technologies, and developing nations, where many residents lack access even to telephones or radios—or literacy, for that matter. By the time the developing world gains access to a technology, it has already been “colonized” by developed nations with information and established practices. Those developed nations, in turn, have moved on to even newer technologies, so the gap can never be closed.

In my lifetime I have witnessed American hubris. The history books I grew up with gave me every reason to forget that the era of U.S. world power really has been a twentieth- and twenty-first-century phenomenon—and that the era of white, European-American hegemony hasn’t existed for much longer in the grand scheme of things. The perspective granted by the lengthy coverage of earlier empires in Empire and Communications is humbling in this regard, since it makes me wonder how long the U.S. empire will endure. If attaining a dynamic interplay between time and space biases is crucial to the success and longevity of civilizations, isn’t this what the United States has accomplished through its commercial media industries in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries? Yet by Innis’s reckoning, the overemphasized space bias will make it relatively short-lived in the end.


1. Empire and Communications was originally published by Oxford University Press in 1950. Edited by Mary Quayle Innis and with an introduction by Marshall McLuhan, it was reissued in 1972 by the University of Toronto Press. An illustrated third edition was published by Press Porcepic in 1986. The fourth and latest edition, which I cite here, was published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2007.

2. Charles R. Acland, “Histories of Place and Power: Innis in Canadian Cultural Studies,” inHarold Innis in the New Century: Reflections and Refractions, ed. Charles R. Acland and William J. Buxton (Montreal, 1999), 243–60 (quote at 251).

3. Kevin Dowler, “The Early Innis and the Post-Massey Era in Canadian Culture,” in Acland and Buxton, 345.

4. Jody Berland, “Marginal Notes on Cultural Studies in Canada,” University of Toronto Quarterly 64 (1995): 517.

5. James W. Carey, Communication as Culture (New York, 1989); Daniel J. Czitrom, Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982).

6. Carey.

7. Ibid.

8. Czitrom, 150.

9. Cecelia Tichi, Electronic Hearth: Creating an American Television Culture (New York,1992); Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch, “Television as a Cultural Forum: Implications for Research,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies (summer 1983): 45–55; John Fiske and John Hartley, Reading Television (New York, 1978).

10. Czitrom, 159.

11. Paul Heyer, Harold Innis (Lanham, Md., 2003), 67.

12. Catherine Frost, “How Prometheus Is Bound: Applying the Innis Method of Communications Analysis to the Internet,” Canadian Journal of Communication 28 (2003): 16–17.

13. Ibid., 17, 21–22.

14. Heather Menzies, “The Bias of Space Revisited: The Internet and the Information Highway through Women’s Eyes,” in Acland and Buxton (n. 2 above), 322–38 (quote at 331).

15. Edward Comor, “Harold Innis and the ‘Bias of Communication,’” Information, Communication and Society 4 (2001): 287