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ARCHIVED - Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan

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Key Concepts

Most of Harold Innis's career was spent working on economic-historical case studies of industry. In his published doctoral work, A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1923), Innis argues that the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) is essentially the history of the spread of Western civilization over the northern half of North America. He demonstrates that the growth of civilization was dominated by the insurmountable physical character of the land; geological formations like mountain ranges prohibited travel, and the climate in each region dictated what kind of development was possible. The CPR was tangible evidence of civilization's growth beyond these boundaries. The completion of the railway in 1885, like early attempts to discover a Northwest Passage, was monumental in determining the migration of Western civilization over northern North America. The construction of the railroad was both a cause and an effect of that civilization's ability and proclivity to conquer geographical barriers. Innis began to develop ideas about technological nationalism and the economic relationship between urban and rural Canada that were key to his staples theory. For almost two decades, he continued to develop his ideas and methods of inquiry through political-economic studies of industry.

Innis explored the industries he studied first-hand, often traveling extensively to conduct interviews with people who worked in each area, and taking detailed field notes and photographs. Innis's ideas about communications and the functions of communication and technology in society rose out of his approach to Canadian history. He saw that the networks of trade and transportation were more than pathways to move commodities; they were also social and cultural pathways. As a historian, he was very interested in time, and the idea that time was a linear path towards growth and progress. He brought the same approach to his study of human communication that he had brought to his earlier works on industry. He considered all forms of communication dominant in a particular time and place; nothing escaped his analysis -- from clay, papyrus, parchment and paper to oral culture, print culture and electronic culture.

Innis was extensive in his analysis of communication technologies as he sought to understand the conditions that promoted stability and caused change in society. Innis defined stability as the capacity of a society to adapt to changes and to preserve cultural life. By examining these technologies from the point in history when they were invented to the time and place where they became the dominant form of communication, Innis began to notice that fundamental technological breakthroughs ushered in new forms of social organization. At the heart of Innis's understanding of dominant communication technologies in history was the concept of time and space as forms of control. Innis developed the idea of time- and space-bias to describe the way in which media operate in society: time-biased media favour the preservation of knowledge over long periods of time, whereas space-biased media favour the dissemination of knowledge over great distances. The bias of communication directly influences the way media exert control and, consequently, the way society is organized.

For Innis, the consciousness of society is influenced by the available means of communication, since this has an impact on social organization and human associations. In other words, control of communication implies control of consciousness and social organization. An overemphasis on either time- or space-biased media produces instability in society and an imbalance of power. Crucial to this understanding of imbalance is Innis's belief that it is possible to have a monopoly of knowledge.

Photograph of train travelling through mountainous terrain, Leanchoil, British Columbia, 1913 or later


Canadian Pacific Railway Locomotive #5068, Leanchoil, British Columbia, 1913 or later

Excerpt from Harold Innis's field notes, MacKenzie River, 1924


Excerpt from Harold Innis's field notes, MacKenzie River, 1924
Read the full document

Photograph of wooden horse-drawn device for hauling logs up cliffs, no date


Photograph of a horse-drawn device for hauling logs up cliffs taken by Harold Innis while on field trips, no dates
See more photos of Innis's field trips

Two pages from BIBLICA SACRA POLYGLOTTA (Polyglot Bible), showing texts in various languages in parallel columns to facilitate study,1654-1657


Biblica Sacra Polyglotta (Polyglot Bible), with texts in various languages in parallel columns to facilitate study, 1654-1657

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