Harold Adams Innis (1894 –1952) was a Canadian economic historian turned communication theorist, whose research focused on the role of the medium in communication processes. His work – historical in method and ecumenical in scope – demonstrated the centrality of communications in social, political, and cultural development. Together with his junior colleague, Marshall McLuhan, he is considered a founding father of a medium-focused school of communication theory, variously known as the “Toronto School,” “media ecology,” or “medium theory.” It holds that communications media are the key to understanding the co-development of mind, culture, and society.
Born in 1894 and raised on an Ontario farm, Innis earned his BA and MA degrees from McMaster University. After recuperating from an injury suffered in World War I, he completed a doctorate in economics, on the Canadian Pacific Railroad, at the University of Chicago in 1920, and began teaching at the University of Toronto. He would spend his entire academic career there, first as professor of political economy, then as chair of the department, and later as dean of the graduate school. Widely hailed as Canada’s foremost economic historian and political economist, he was active, as royal commissioner, in shaping Canada’s transportation and economic policy. Innis passed away in his prime, in 1952, while working on “History of Communication” – a monumental study that recast world history as a story of civilizations and their media.
Innis’s turn, late in his career, to the study of communication can be seen as an extension of his major contribution to Canadian economic history, the “staple theory.” In detailed studies of Canada’s major staples – from furs and codfish to wood pulp – Innis traced their role in the broader frame of the intercontinental economy. He found that the flow of staples could chart political, economic, social, and even cultural links. He then switched his perspective: rather than focusing on the staples, he zeroed in on the networks and interfaces themselves. Innis’s scholarly background left its traces on his thinking about communications. The most distinctive was the residual presence of the staple: he, and following him the rest of the world, call it the “medium.” Whether a pyramid, a papyrus, or a mobile handset, the process of communicating, according to Innis, is anchored in a staple – just as staples are moved in a field mapped by communications. And media obey economic principles, such as the dynamic of oligopoly.
According to Innis, particular technological attributes of a dominant medium, or a mix of media prevalent in a given society, condition the practice of communication in that society, the institutions and socio-cultural arrangements associated with those practices, and further afield affect its political, economic, social, and cultural portrait. Although this is occasionally misunderstood as simplistic technological determinism, Innis was in fact suggesting “inverted determinism,” namely, that societies develop, reshape, and adopt particular media according to their perceived needs and goals.
Innis suggested that media serve to enhance the development of society in one of two general orientations, or “biases”: an emphasis on time or on space. A time bias would characterize a society oriented to its past, to religion, magic, ascribed status, hereditary rule, primary occupations, and so forth. A space bias would imply an orientation to commercial and military power, science, achieved social status, bureaucracy etc. He believed that a balance between these biases optimized the social good, but was seldom achieved in history, with classical Greece as an outstanding exception.
According to Innis, media technologies paralleled and affected societies’ time or space bias. He observed that there is an inverse relation between the durability and transportability of media. For instance, a pyramid can maintain knowledge for millennia but is not suited for transportation, while a papyrus is easily transportable but is not durable. The time-binding potential of media and their space-binding capability are complementary variables. Society can only balance its communicative act by consciously blending a variety of media into a stable media ecology.
Related to this notion, and one of the most broadly applied of Innis’s ideas, was his analysis of monopoly of knowledge. He found that when certain media, knowledge products, or communicative skills dominate society’s communication environment, the peculiar dynamics of oligopoly make for amplifying and perpetuating the hold on society of those media and the bodies of knowledge associated with them. Since media affect ideology and consciousness, a communication environment biased by monopoly will be resistant to change, and hence cannot endure.
Innis provided one of the richest bodies of thinking on the meaning of communication media and society, and one of the most broadly construed attempts at understanding the dynamics of their historical co-evolution. Still, Innis’s legacy has yet to be meaningfully seized on. One reason for this relative neglect is the complexity and difficulty of his writings. Further, until quite recently his ecumenical level of analysis did not fit the prevalent trends in communication research. Finally, his historicity has represented a barrier. It did not find a significant following among social scientists interested in communication. Yet Innis’s pioneering work has the potential of reorientation, from looking backward to understanding the present and future.
- Acland, C. A., & Buxton, W. J. (eds.) (2000). Harold Innis in the new century: Reflections and refractions. Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press.
- Blondheim, M. (2003). Harold Adams Innis and his bias of communication. In E. Katz, J. Peters, T. Liebes, & A. Orloff (eds.), Canonic texts in media research. Cambridge: Polity, pp. 156 –190.
- Carey, J. W. (1992). Space, time and communications: A tribute to Harold Innis. In J. W. Carey, Communication as culture: Essays in media and society. New York: Routledge, pp. 142 –172.
- Innis, H. A. (1951). The bias of communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Innis, H. A. (1972). Empire and communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Watson, J. A. (2006). Marginal man: The dark vision of Harold Innis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Watson, R., & Blondheim, M. (eds.) (2007). The Toronto School of Communication theory: Interpretations, extension, applications. Toronto: University of Toronto Press and Magnes Hebrew University Press.
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