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In the 1947 Presidential Lecture to the Royal Society of Canada, Harold Innis mapped out his view of the relationship between empire and media technologies. As the central metaphor of his address, he used the classical myth of Minerva's Owl, known to the Greeks as Pallas Athena, the goddess who represented wisdom and the quest for knowledge:
In the regions to which Minerva's Owl takes flight the success of organized force may permit a new enthusiasm and an intense flowering of culture incidental to the migration of scholars engaged in Herculean efforts in a declining civilization to a new area with possibilities of protection. The success of organized force is dependent on an effective combination of the oral tradition and the vernacular in public opinion with technology and science. An organized public opinion following the success of force becomes receptive to cultural importation. 7
This speech, printed as the first chapter of The Bias of Communication, demonstrates how Innis perceived the transfer of culture and knowledge to and from the great empires of the world. The speech makes clear that, to Innis, all forms of media change via a process that is based on the constant transfer of knowledge, and that the process by which monopolies of knowledge change is related to the rise and fall of empires.
With a weakening of protection of organized force, scholars put forth greater efforts and in a sense the flowering of the culture comes before its collapse. Minerva's owl begins its flight in the gathering dusk not only from classical Greece but in turn from Alexandria, from Rome, from Constantinople, from the republican cities of Italy, from France, from Holland, and from Germany. 8
Poster entitled Cargoes of Empire, from the Empire Marketing Board, circa 1929. The Board sought to stimulate trade in the British Empire in the late 1920s and early 1930s
Harold Innis, no date
7. Innis, The Bias of Communication, p. 5.
8. Innis, The Bias of Communication, p. 5.