Innis’ Bias

I am a firm believer that before you embark upon something, anything, you need to do your research. Harold Innis’ The Bias of Communication is a must-read for anyone studying or practicing public relations, as it provides a condensed historical account of the evolution of communications. Through this, Innis argues three primary points – that new communications advancements changed society/culture; that those who hold a monopoly on knowledge hold the power; and that bias not only lies in messaging, but within the communication channel itself.

In my presentation of Innis’ article on Tuesday, September 17, I outlined two of Innis’ historical contexts that supported his argument that new communication advances resulted in a change in society – ancient Egypt and ancient Rome. Innis argues that a shift from using tablet/stone/hieroglyphics to papyrus shifted power from the monarchy – who had the control on stone – to the people, who had access to papyrus. As a result Egyptian society evolved past the monarchy.

In addition, the shift from stone to papyrus also virtually deleted what Innis called the monopoly of knowledge – those who control knowledge, communication channels and the spread of knowledge hold the power. As papyrus became available to the masses, knowledge spread and the monarchy could no longer control it or the society as a whole. Innis also shows how the monopoly of knowledge is affected through ancient Rome and the emergence of paper and development of the codex. At this time, approximately 2,500 years after papyrus first appeared in Egypt, papyrus was widespread; however it was scarce. Paper began to come from China, and Rome developed the codex (bound book), which replaced the scroll. As a result, libraries were built and knowledge began to spread even rapidly. One group that readily adopted paper and the codex was Christianity, which enabled the religion to spread and grow – the monopoly of knowledge in terms of religion dwindled to make way for the young religion. According to Innis the general population over time seems to influence the evolution of media and the monopoly of knowledge, therefore the changes in society.

Media for Innis is any means used to communicate or disseminate information. When we typically speak of bias in media, we mean the messaging that is in favour or against one thing, person or group compared with another. Innis, however, believed bias could also be found within the media itself. In his article Innis articulates that each communication medium has either a time bias or a space bias. A time bias is considered heavy and inefficient, but has a long life span. It also reaches a local or smaller audience. Examples of media that contain a time bias are clay, stone, hand-copied documents, early newspapers and oral speech. On the reverse, Innis also discusses space bias within media, which is more efficient and seeks to obliterate space. It is light and transportable, can be transmitted over distance and reaches a larger audience – however, it has a relatively short lifespan. Examples of media with a space bias for Innis are radio, mass-produced newspapers and television. Innis wrote The Bias of Communication in 1949, well-before many of the new media we use today, but I believe Innis would also classify the Internet and social media among those media with a space bias.

Today monopolies of knowledge can be found within China and Iran in terms of social media, and within North Korea for all external media. Many would argue that we are currently dominated with space bias communication and media technologies, as everything moves extremely quickly. In class, one topic of conversation was whether or not new media could be considered time or space bias. Social media is rapid, easily transportable and efficient; however we are constantly told that anything put on the Internet is there forever – making it long lasting and, according to Innis, a time biased media. Innis argues that societies need to keep a balance between time and space bias media in order to be stable, and he also notes that media can be either time or space bias but not both. Could it be possible that the Internet and web 2.0 technologies have breached that great divide and are now both time and space bias? If Innis can argue that media can both disseminate biased messages, as well as be biased, then I would argue that new communication media are both biases as well. What are your thoughts on this?

While you ponder this, please watch this video that bridges the gap from 1949 to today.

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1 Response to Innis’ Bias

  1. allangates1 says:

    Great post Wendy.

    I agree with your assertion that Internet communications is both time and space biased. Advances in technology have made Innis’s framework irrelevant. Perhaps Innis would find solace in that this lack of balance between time and space media has created instability in our society. Social media has reshaped the power dynamic of institutions, generally making them less powerful as the “crowd” becomes more powerful. We see the rise of new actors as a result of Web 2.0 and social media – like the Occupy movement – that are widely distributed and only loosely co-ordinated from a central authority. So there is a battle underway in our newly unbalanced world to determine who ultimately has the most influence, power and control.

    The Internet is clearly the equal of papyrus or paper (and the printing press)in terms of cultural and social importance. It has fulfilled McLuhan’s vision of the “global village” making it possible for individuals to connect and not just communicate, but collaborate to achieve shared goals. It can fuel revolution, as we saw during the Arab spring, and is changing how we experience our personal relationships on a daily basis.

    I suspect Innis would have been fascinated by this historic change.


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