Harold Innis


Harold Innis received his Ph.D. degree in economics at the University of Chicago at a time when Robert E. Park and George Herbert Mead were teaching communication. From there he moved to the University of Toronto, where he later met his colleague Marshall McLuhan. Only in the last ten years of his life did he turn to the study of communication, in which he published two books; Empire and Communications (1950), and The Bias of Communication (1951). Rogers (1994) called Innis "one of the most influential media determinists" (p. 486).

Innis's theory of communication divided media into two "bias"; time-binding media and space-binding media. Time-binding media such as manuscripts and oral communication are have limited distribution potential. According to Carey (1992), time-binding media "favored relatively close communities, metaphysical speculation, and traditional authority" (p. 134). Space-binding media such as print and electronic media are concerned with expansion and control. Again according to Carey, space-binding media "favored the establishment of commercialism, empire and eventually technocracy" (p. 134). According to Innis, modern western history began with temporal organization and ended with spatial organization. Carey wrote, "It is the history of the evaporation of an oral and manuscript tradition and the concerns of community, morals, and metaphysics and their replacement by print and electronics supporting a bias towards space" (p. 160).

Innis grew increasingly pessimistic later in life. Changes in communication technology were seen as a revaluation of community and a of loss culture and freedom. Carey went on to write,

Innis argued that any form of communication possessed a bias; by its nature it was most adept at reducing signaling time and controlling space or strengthening collective memory and consciousness and controlling time. This bias hardened into a monopoly when groups came to control the form of communication and to identify their interests, priestly or political, with its capacity. (p. 167)

Although Innis died before seeing the widespread diffusion of television in
North America, his vision of the future was compelling. According to Carey,

What Innis saw most clearly was that the main meaning of electronics was not in the provision of entertainment and information through radio and television. he recognized that the speed and distance of electronic communication enlarged the possible scale of social organization and greatly enhanced the possibilities of centralization and imperialism in matters of culture and politics. (p. 137)