Harold Adams Innis:

The Bias of Communications & Monopolies of Power

by
Marshall Soules
1996

Harold Adams 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 PhD. 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 Technology and the Canadian Mind, Arthur Kroker writes:

To read Innis is to become aware, intensely and immediately, of our conditioning by the social process of modern technology: a social process which thematizes reason ("machine rationality"), will ("utility as the modern nullity"), feeling ("present mindedness"), and organization ("spatially biased media of communication").
Kroker also tells us that Innis often reflected on Herodotus’ statement: "The ultimate bitterness is this: to have consciousness of much; but control over nothing."

The Bias of Communication

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:
  1. How do specific communication technologies operate?
  2. What assumptions do they take from and contribute to society?
  3. What forms of power do they encourage?
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.

Monopolies of Knowledge

When fascism comes to America, it will come in the form of democracy.
--Huey Long

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. (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:

In The History of Sexuality, Pt.1., Michel Foucault gives a compelling analysis of the way in which the confession has been used to establish mechanisms of control. The church passed this torch on to psychoanalysis.

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. 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 relationship 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 oppressors.

Social Change

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:

Society < --- > Technology

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.

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.

References

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.