All that is solid melts into thin air
Today's Question: The Bias of Communication is known as a "classic" in the study of communication technology, but it is also described as "difficult," "nonlineal," "puzzling," and "a struggle" -- probably chiefly because the book does not build to a sustained or coherent argument. Choose one of the three essays assigned for today and read them in the manner suggested by the introduction -- as an "idea file." Identify some important concept, theory, or insight in the essay you chose and describe its importance. Please describe the idea critically as appropriate -- list drawbacks as well as praise. It may be helpful to reference earlier class readings as a point of comparison to show what is different about Innis' ideas or his disciplinary approach (economic history).
Harold A. Innis in his work, The Bias of Communication, indicates that the mode of communication and its inherent ability to traverse space is an essential reflection of the political and economic organization of the society that produces and manipulates that communication medium. This assertion provides an essential groundwork for Innis’ protégé, Marshal McLuhan and his bold assertion that in fact it is not the content of communication that is of any particular interest, but rather that “the medium is the message”. While it is very easy to read that notion throughout Innis’ work, credit should be granted to McLuhan to reducing Innis’ lengthy discourse into a compact, pithy sound bite.
What is particularly surprising in Innis’ work is the central role that time plays within communication and how that factor reverberates within political administration, social organization, technological advancement, economic development and power. Until now, most of the class readings have dealt with how communication technologies have collapsed the vast distances of the world to allow almost instantaneous communication, be it by wireless, radio, television, email, ICQ/IM, on social formations. Innis however takes a very broad perspective that links these developments in communication technology with vastly older communication technologies that range from stone and clay tablets, to the development of ink and papyrus, the printing press and paper, celluloid and the newsreel, to radio broadcasting equipment and receivers. For Innis, the medium of communication determines the easy of which the information contained within is transmitted and disseminated. Also inherent within the medium is a notion of durability, an ability to speak across the passage of time to future generations. “Our knowledge of other civilizations depends in large part on the character of the media used by each civilization in so far as it is capable of being preserved or being made accessible by discovery as in the case of archeological expeditions.” (p.33)
Innis indicates that thorough these various technological advancements, they had noticeable and important ramifications on commerce, class, political organization and power, knowledge and religion. He establishes the broad claim that “We can perhaps assume that the use of a medium of communication over a long period will to some extent determine (my emphasis) the character of knowledge to be communicated and suggest that its pervasive influence will eventually a civilization in which life and flexibility will become exceedingly difficult to maintain and that the advantages of a new medium will become such as to lead to the emergence of a new civilization.” (p.34)
Can we thus assume that Innis is expressing a kind of technological determinism? Perhaps. It is noteworthy to indicate the implicit union and codependence of economics and technology has for Innis and his scholarship. We can easily adapt the line of argument that Innis supplies to note that today’s instantaneous forms of electronic communication (IM, email, etc) are reflections of the rapid and ever moving markets of capital that are expressed in the 24/7 “globalized” world. However, if one was to step back and examine the original formation of the “internet” and its creation through governmental funding to forge close associations with military and scientific research, it seems to offer little in spurring international trade and the movement of capital. In fact, some may predict that the development and establishment of web 2.0 is going to have such widespread ramifications on society that the very notion of democracy will be changed, thus the US government through funding the precursor to the “internet” sowed the seeds of its own downfall. It appears to me that Innis is as much of an economic determinist as he is a technological one, and it is this mutual dependence and interplay that makes it difficult to argue otherwise.