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Harold Innis

Page history last edited by Jeff Martinek 11 years, 11 months ago


"The economist respects history, but he does not accord it a special value. He conceives it as a study complementary to his own: one of them unfurls the range of human societies in time, the other in space." --Claude Levi-Strauss



Harold Adam Innis was a Canadian political economist who believed that the effectiveness of a culture can be found by looking at two very important aspects: how much power and authority that culture exerts over others through communication technologies, and how the proportion of that culture's media affects its stability. Innis is considered a trailblazer in the field of Media Ecology for his development of time and space biased media, which are frequently referred to by other reputable theorist in the same field of study.

Harold Adam Innis was born 1894 (November 5, 1894–November 8, 1952) in Hamiilton, Ontario. Innis graduated from McMaster University, and earned his PhD from the University of Chicagoin the field of political economy. He fought in World War l, and shortly after fighting, he chose to spend the rest of his life looking at how civilizations manage to remain dominant powers. Innis, in many ways, is thought to be a founding father of media ecology.




After fighting in WWII and seeing how the advancement of one nation can affect the survival of another, Innis decided to become a pacifist and study how smaller nations become dependent and submissive on nations more advance in technological forms of media. One of his first studies was on the Canadian dependence America for its production/transportation of single use commodities. His Thesis statement was that when a civilization does not advance in its forms of media technology, it will soon be forgotten. Innis spent the rest of his life studying ways to overcome the imbalance of technological opportunities. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Innis




"A medium of communication has an important influenve on the dissemination of knowledge over space and over time and it becomes necessary to study its characteristics in order to appraise its influence in its cultural setting." --Harold A. Innis



Harold Innis coined two major terms that helped to define Media Ecology as we know it today, time-biased and space-biased media communication. Innis believed that the only reason some cultures/civilizations are remembered is because of the forms of media used by that civilization or culture. [1] One of Innis’s key ideologies was that every form of evolution of technology that occurred altered an aspect(s) of time and space; he used stone and hieroglyphics vs. papyrus as expressions of time and space alterations. Innis insinuated that civilizations that used stone or hieroglyphics were time-biased civilizations because they are more interested in the historical preservation of morals and beliefs, and unless a person was living in these areas they would not be aware of things like laws or decrees. He stated that papyrus is an example of medium used by space-biased civilizations because they were able to transport their influence through space without being constrained by stationary time. A fair depiction of this theory would be the Roman Empire because it was able send out decrees over vast amounts of land, monopolizing and taking advantage of smaller nations, through the invention of papyrus; this fostered a new form of government called imperialism. Innis stood out for his simplistic manner of initiating though provoking ideas, and all though these theories were directed to one focal point at the time, overtime it has taken on different meanings to cultures/ civilizations.




The following is a quote taken from The Bias of Communication by Harold Innis:


An interest in the bias of other civilizations may in itself suggest a bias of our own. Our knowledge of other civilizations depends in large part of the character of the media used by each civilization in so far as it is capable of being preserved or of being made accessible by discovery as in the case of the results of archaeological expeditions...[1]


Innis is saying that we would not even posses the ability to know what to be curious about if it were not for our own forms of communication. Without the invention of the alphabet, newspapers, books, telegraph, etc… we would be oblivious to the existence of other civilizations from past history. This is also why there are cultures that we do not possess enough information on because the form of media cannot aid us in deciphering what type of civilization they were; this also, according to Innis, would explain why they are now obsolete.


Criticisms of Innis

A reoccurring criticism by peers of Innis was that he often circumvented whole-truths in order to prove his points;

"...Heyer remarks perceptively that Innis' depiction of oral culture was based largely on classical Greek culture, and that he could have benefited significantly by investigating other oral civilizations" [2]



The Importance of Time and Space Biased Communication for Dummies


Harold Innis, time and space, who cares, right? The purpose of media ecology is to evaluate the forms of communication, or the ways in which civilizations communicate (basically the way we send information). Harold Innis believed that the longevity of a civilization is directly correlated to the forms of communication, and according to Innis, there were only two forms of communication that could determine the lifespan…time and space biased communication. Well, right now you are sitting at your computer reading the words and images that have been posted, this is a prime example of space biased communication (papyrus is also an example used by Innis [1]; you are in your time and place, but the words on this screen have been transported from Microsoft Word to this wiki site. I chose this form to send the message, and the form allowed the message to travel great distances; many years from now (unless this form becomes obsolete) other people will be able to read my construction of Innis’s theory…so in a way, I become immortalized. However, the main drawback Innis had concerning space biased communication, was the fact that it could be easily destroyed (you could click delete at any moment and my word would cease to exist) [1].

Now, let’s say that I chose to proclaim my undying love for my boyfriend on a brick wall; the only people who are going to see my proclamation of love are the people who happen to walk by. According to Innis, the brick wall would be time biased because no one would receive my information unless they were in that time; time biased forms of media cannot be transported (prime example: hieroglyphics)[1]. Innis does give time biased forms of media a kudos by stating that time biased forms are not easily destroyed [1];this is why archeologist are able to discover civilizations that no longer exist (Inca/Mayan).


One the whole, who’s to say that with the way we are constantly scaffolding on prior forms of communication, that we won’t find our own civilization obsolete? What if we can no longer compete with the rapid rate of change in forms of media? These are the same thoughts that made Harold Innis go…Hmmmmm.


Time and Space Biased Meduims: Proof of Evolutionary Thinking




Implications For Media Ecology


When thinking on time/space-biased forms of media communication, one cannot help but point out how much more advanced the field of media ecology would be if Innis were living in this highly advanced digital civilization. With each evolution of media, media ecologist can test these mediums against the time and space-biased theories. These two theories have led to innumerable amounts of questions and dichotomies; whether it is agreed upon unanimously, if cannot be negated that these theories of Innis bare a responsibility of being two several fundamentals of Media Ecology.




[1]  Innis, Harold.  The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951.


[2] Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 13, NO. 3&4 87


[3] Bibliography link care of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Innis

Related Class Documents



S.I. Hayakawa, The Ladder of Abstractionhttp://iwcenglish1.typepad.com/iwc_media_ecology/Documents/Language_and_Survival.doc


Ronald J. Deibert, From Parchment Codex to The Printing Press




External Links


Original Author:  Kim Fitten


Comments (4)

Jeff Martinek said

at 1:59 pm on Sep 11, 2008


We have The Bias of Communications and Empire and Communications in our library. Chad will also be using these books to work on "Transportation vs. Transmission," so you may want to coordinate with him.
-- AdmiN (2008-03-19 12:15:40)

Jeff Martinek said

at 1:59 pm on Sep 11, 2008

Innis was a mentor to Marshall McLuhan. This may be worth mentioning as a way to link pages.
-- ZachReiter (2008-04-13 22:31:09)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:00 pm on Sep 11, 2008

Kim, I think it could be beneficial to add a section on the printing press or the telegraph in reference to the time/space theory. You could elaborate on how these inventions that changed the face of time/space medium travel affected the cultures at that time. After all, Martin Luther probably wouldn't have had as much luck if he didn't have the press to speed up the time it took to send messages long distances. Likewise, how the telegraph changed the way communication traveled in the United States after its invention.
-- PriscillaMarlar (2008-04-25 10:17:56)

Jeff Martinek said

at 2:00 pm on Sep 11, 2008

Kim, I think you you did good and your page looks good!
-- JenniferCrowe (2008-04-25 13:04:33)

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