Harold Innis

  • Canadian communication theorist and economist, the “father of Canadian Economic History”

Canadian Pacific Railway

  • Wrote his PhD thesis on the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR)
  • Insists that the project was sustained by fears of American annexation

Staples Thesis

  • Known for the staple thesis of Canadian economic development
  • Held that the development of Canada was due to the export of staples, such as fur, fish, wood, wheat, and fossil fuels
  • Used “dirt” experience / “dirt” research by padding a canoe to explore the wilderness, gaining knowledge to form a basis for his thesis
  • Developed the thesis in two books:
    • The History of the Fur Trade in Canada (1930)
      • Held that Canada grew because, not in spite of, its geography
      • Argued for the importance of First Nation peoples
    • The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (1940)

Communication Theories


  • Began studying pulp and paper, which may have led to his interest in communication
  • Explicated his theories in Empire and Communications (1950) The Bias of Communication (1951)

Empire and Communications

  1. Introduction
  2. Egypt
  3. Babylonia
  4. The Oral Tradition and Greek Civilization
  5. The Written Tradition and the Roman Empire
  6. Parchment and Paper
  7. Paper and the Printing Press

The Bias of Communication

  1. Minerva’s owl
  2. The bias of communication
  3. A plea for time
  4. The problem of space
  5. Industrialism and cultural values
  6. The English publishing trade in the eighteenth century
  7. Technology and public opinion in the United States
  8. “A critical review.”

Innis suggests we ask three basic questions:

How do specific communication technologies operate? What assumptions do they take from and contribute to society? What forms of power do they encourage?

  • Development of communication media holds the key to social change
  • Each medium has a bias in organization and control of information
    • Duration over time vs. extension in space
  • Stable societies achieved a balance of time- and space- biased media
  • Change came from the margins of society, as they developed their own media
    • Example: vernacular challenging the Latin of the Catholic church

For Innis, the organization of empires seems to follow two major models. The first model is militaristic and concerned with the conquest of space. The second model is religious and concerned with the conquest of time. Comparatively, the media that have supported the military conquering of space have been lighter, so that the constraints of long distances could be lessened. Those media that supported theocratic empires had relative durability as a major characteristic so that they could support the concepts of eternal life and endless dynasties.

Time-Biased Media

  • Durable and heavy
  • Example: stone and clay
  • Difficult to move = discourage territorial expansion
  • Long life = encourage extension of empire over time
  • Facilitate the development of social hierarchies
    • Associated with religious societies
    • Example: ancient Egypt

Space-Biased Media

  • Light and portable
    • Can be transported across large distances
  • Example: paper (easily transported, but has a relatively short lifespan)
  • Associated with secular, territorial, and militaristic societies
  • Facilitate the expansion of empire over space

Oral Communication

  • Oral communication was considered time-biased
    • Required the relative stability of community for face-to-face contact
    • Orally passed down knowledge requires a stable lineage

Monopolies of Knowledge

  • Consider society as a network of communication systems
  • Some key junctures hold significant information
    • People who control these nodes are very powerful
      • Examples: organized church, insider trading
  • They can hold a monopoly on knowledge
    • Also in a position to define what is legitimate knowledge1
    • These monopolies are at stake in the longevity of empires

Power is derived from the following:

  • Mastery of Complexity: creates a hierarchy of professionals and amateurs.
  • Control of Raw Materials for Media:
    • Ted Turner buys RKO!
    • Bill Gates / Microsoft buys the Bettman Archives!
  • Performativity: Just as Egyptian priests were able to accurately predict the regular flooding of the Nile because knowledge of writing allowed them to make calculations, so does access to pubic opinion allow pollsters to predict elections within certain percentage parameters.
  • Speed: Advantages accrue to those who have the knowledge first. Business done in back rooms or in the corridors of power are often never reported in the media.
  • Ability to Afford High Costs: The cult of “production value” in design, recording, television, and Hollywood movies makes it difficult for lower budget artifacts to compete for attention.

Monopolies of society tend to…

  • Polarize society into mass of ignorant and knowledge elite
  • Encourage centralization of power
  • Promote tendencies toward instability, ironically
    • Competitors are always trying to subvert the monopoly

The Bias of Communication

Note: This is a essay (chapter) out of the larger book The Bias of Communication

Relative emphasis on time or space will imply a bias of significance to the culture in which it is embedded

  • Empires are characterized by the type of media they use the most

    • That’s how others come to know of their achievements
  • Spends rest of chapter applying this to various civilizations (e.g. Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians)

    • Suggests that media adopted by a civilization will shape the “character of knowledge” transmitted by that culture
      • Origin of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”
  • McLuhan describes Innis’ approach to developing his ideas as “mosaic

    • Related elements are juxtaposed
    • Gaps must be filled in by the reader
    • Result is an “interface”

Minerva’s Owl

Minerva’s Owl begins its flight only in the gathering dusk.

  • Richest flowering of an empire comes just before its decline and fall
    • All great empires are most vulnerable in the moment of their over-reaching

  1. Author’s note: reminds me of gatekeeping, before that was a thing. ↩︎