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  • Space Bias/Time Bias: Harold Innis, Empire and Communications
  • Megan Mullen (bio)

Harold Adams Innis introduced his major contributions to communication scholarship gradually, perhaps not even realizing until near the end of his life that he even had ideas to contribute to this nascent field. Reviewing Innis’s work, as well as what has been written about him since his death in 1952, I am aware of how much my thinking has been influenced by him. But unlike many influential theorists, Innis’s most powerful ideas are stated subtly, often embedded in lengthy histories full of arcane detail. So I don’t always remember to credit him directly when spouting off notions about connections between the printing press and modern-day forms of slavery, or between local historians and the rise of internet genealogy sites. Yet I should cite various essays and I certainly should cite Empire and Communications. I am confronted constantly by evidence that the conditions Innis identified as key to the success and longevity of empires define twenty-first-century life.

Empire and Communications is a seminal book.1 Its meticulous examination of civilizations from ancient history to the early twentieth century consumed years of Innis’s life, as he looked to support his thesis that media technologies are the critical influences in the rise and fall of empires. He explains that “the concepts of time and space reflect the significance of media to civilization…. Materials that emphasize time favour decentralization and hierarchical types of institutions, while those that emphasize space [End Page 175] favour centralization and systems of government less hierarchical in character” (pp. 26–27). Too often, though, students and casual scholars retain the space bias/time bias distinction without following it through to the critical point: that it is essential for both of these biases to be present in any enduring civilization and to function in tandem—for that is where the cultural and economic links that allow empires to prosper are forged. As Innis goes on to explain: “Large-scale political organizations such as empires … have tended to flourish under conditions in which civilization reflects the influence of more than one medium and in which the bias of one medium towards decentralization is offset by the bias of another medium towards centralization” (p. 27).

In the case of ancient Egypt, Innis sees scribal power, the development and use of writing systems, checked by religious adherence to oral tradition. He sees Egyptian monarchs as having been extremely powerful internally because of their connectedness to religious beliefs, but he also uses this to account for the nation’s limited success at empire building. His initial contrast is with Babylonia, where secular monarchies and a written code of law kept in check the religious practices of smaller city-states within the empire. The balance was even more apparent in ancient Greece, as Innis writes:

The strength of the oral tradition and the relative simplicity of the alphabet checked the possible development of a highly specialized profession of scribes and the growth of a monopoly of the priesthood over education. A military aristocracy restricted the influence of a priestly class and poets imposed control over public opinion. The Greeks had no Bible with a sacred literature attempting to give reasons and coherence to the scheme of things, making dogmatic assertions and strangling science in infancy. Without a sacred book and a powerful priesthood the ties of religion were weakened and rational philosophy was developed by the ablest minds to answer the demand for generalizations acceptable to everyone.

(p. 88)

The Greek empire did fall, of course—but not before building a legacy of art and ideas that would leave its mark on cultures the world over until our own day. Innis’s time/space bias concept, developed in later work of which Empire and Communications is the most important statement, makes a fine complement to his earlier nation-or empire-focused “staples theory” of economics, in which control over geographic territory is understood as being gained and held through an unequal balance of trade. In the history of his native Canada, for example, Innis saw that the export-import relationship of unprocessed pelts to finished fur coats...


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pp. 175-186
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