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

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Time- and Space-Bias

Harold Innis did not see every event or technology as one that would lead to certain events in the future. He suggested that much of history is governed by "its obsession with the present" 1 and that civilizations are largely shaped by the media which are most pervasive in their cultures. Innis, therefore, sought to understand media in relation to the social and historical contexts they dominated.

A medium of communication has an important influence 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. 2

Innis disliked the notion that time was progress; he saw history as operating in a cyclical pattern. In advocating the historical appraisal of media in their cultural settings, he also sought to understand the influence of communications media in our own time. Because we are "too much a part" of our own civilization and the media that dominate our lives, according to Innis, the influential characteristics of those media are hidden from us. Through studying media dominant in other cultural contexts, Innis hoped to understand his own, and the media forces influencing it, more clearly.

Innis is generally concerned with two governing principles of media: duration over time and extension in space. Innis's writings on time- and space-biases are an important part of his legacy in communications studies and history.

Time-biased media seek to transcend time. They are heavy and durable, such as clay and stone. They have a long lifespan but they do not encourage the extension of empires. Innis associated these media with the customary, the sacred, and the moral. Time-biased media facilitate the development of social and industrial hierarchies. They also favour the growth of religion and the hegemony that religion imposes on secondary institutions, such as education. For Innis, speech is also a time-biased medium. Speech, in the form of oral culture, can be passed down from generation to generation, yet does not encourage territorial expansion. Oral culture is concerned with preserving values and traditional knowledge. Oral cultures emphasize their past and create a collective society rich in tradition, ceremony and custom.

Space-biased media, conversely, seek to obliterate space. They are light and transportable and can be transmitted over distances. They are associated with secular and territorial societies and facilitate the expansion of empire over space. Paper is an example of space-biased media; it is readily transported, but has a relatively short lifespan since it degrades, and can be easily destroyed or lost. Writing, closely linked with paper, is also an example of a space-biased media. Writing emphasizes the present and the future, and is not localized like oral culture. Writing is grounded in technical knowledge and facilitates the growth of states, political authorities and decentralized institutions.

Tensions exist between time-biased and space-biased media. The innovation of writing, for example, led to the first attempts to record oral culture; the tradition of writing considered oral culture preserved once it was recorded or written down. However, in the culture of writing, while the past is preserved for future generations, the effort to record tradition does not necessarily mean that society is learning from past knowledge. As Carey notes, "Whereas the character of storage and reception of the oral tradition favour continuity over time, the written tradition favours discontinuity in time through continuum over space." 3 Writing culture, in its emphasis on the present and the future, moves "forward" from the traditions, knowledge systems and ceremonies that were embodied within the now "preserved" oral culture, leaving oral culture itself behind.

Innis's historical survey of the role of communication and communications technologies in the rise and fall of empires led him to recognize the societal danger in relying too heavily on either time- or space-biased media. The organization of a society is affected by its dominant forms of communication. Further, our understanding of our own civilization, as well as previous civilizations, is limited by our culture's bias toward specific forms of media. Media thus generate certain forms of knowledge and historical understanding. Innis posited that stable societies are able to achieve a balance between time and space biases.

We can perhaps assume that the use of a medium of communication over a long period will to some extent determine the character of knowledge to be communicated and suggest that its pervasive influence will eventually create 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. 4

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Marshall McLuhan discusses Innis's idea of time- and space bias, interview with Nina Sutton, November 1975.
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Photograph of Egyptian papyrus-bundle column and reliefs, early 14th century B.C., photograph by Roloff Beny


Egyptian papyrus-bundle column and reliefs, early 14th century B.C., photograph by Roloff Beny

Page showing sanscrit roll with text and mythological figure, THE ORIENTAL COLLECTIONS, 1797


Sanscrit roll, The Oriental Collections, 1797

Representation of figures and writing from ancient Egyptian brass plate, THE ORIENTAL COLLECTIONS, 1797


Figures and writing from ancient Egyptian brass plate, The Oriental Collections, 1797


1. Innis, The Bias of Communication, p. 61.

2. Innis, The Bias of Communication, p. 33.

3. Carey, "Harold Adams Innis and Marshall McLuhan," p. 12.

4. Innis, The Bias of Communication, p. 34.

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