Tag Archives: Innis

Innis – Empire & Communications

In his chapter on chapter “Paper and the Printing Press” in Empire and Communication, Innis (1950) analyses the impact of print upon the world across approximately 500 years.  With particular emphasis on Europe and North America, Innis probes the relationship between printing technology and the socio-political and economic developments that he saw as highly influenced by the speed up of communication afforded by technological innovation and the sudden expansion in the availability of printed material (particularly printed material on secular topics).  Innis appraises this relationship with the eyes of a political-economist and repeatedly draws attention in his continental and trans-Atlantic tour, to the cultural disruptions that he saw as driven in large part by the force of technological change.

            The scale of the change is truly extraordinary, especially if one just considers the main product of the increasing numbers of printing presses: pages, Bibles, secular tracts, political pamphlets, plays, poems, books, newspapers.  Both the number of printed materials and the speed of their printing saw dramatic increases.  For instance, Innis talks about the printing press blazing away at the speed of 20 to 200 leaves per hour in 1538 in France.  Approximately 150 years later, in 1701, Innis refers to the development of the first daily sheet, the precursor to the modern newspaper. The technology now supported the production of 250 sheets an hour, or 2000 sheets in an 8 hour shift, a long shift for the printers who still worked the presses by hand.  With the introduction of steam power in the Industrial Revolution, the rate of production increased dramatically.  Between 1814 and 1853, according to Innis, the “production of newspapers was increased from 250 to 1000 copies an hour, then to 12000 copies an hour” (160).  This increase in speed especially favoured the formation of print monopolies like that of The Times in London.  Innis mentions a further jump in speed in the United States a mere 30 years later. “The cylinder press, the sterotype, the web press, and the linotype brought increases from 2,400 copies of 12 pages each per hour to 48,000 copies of 8 pages per hour in 1887, and to 96,000 copies of 8 pages per hour in 1983” (161).  Therefore, in the 350 odd years that Innis sweeps through during the early development of this technology, the printing press accelerates the rate of information production from approximately 200 pages an hour to approximately 768,000 pages an hour.   In this wake, the modern world is born and whole societies are transformed.

            It is interesting to consider Innis’s points concerning the impact of the speed of communications in relation to what we see today with the development of the Internet. In 1994, the World Wide Web, a medium contained within the communications network of the Internet, was emerging as a powerful new way to exchange information across a distributed network of connected machines, dubbed the “Information Superhighway”. Marc Andreesen started an exciting new company called Netscape, and introduced a way to access pages that combine text and graphics.  At this point, in Canada most people were connecting to the Internet using 28kbps or slower modems, so it was only practical to exchange text or simple graphical information. In 2004, data traffic on the Internet was estimated to be in the range of .006 Terabytes per second. Video conferencing was possible, but still only practical between specialized facilities and dedicated networks using high-speed network or satellite connections.  This was, of course a very expensive and complicated way to connect people.  Educators were very excited about the amazing opportunities afforded by the almost limitless expanse of 640 MB on a CDROM.  Such amazing multimedia CDROMS were possible because of the power of the latest computer: a Pentium processor running at 90 Mhz with 16 MB RAM, 4 MB of Video RAM and a 500 MB Hard drive, running Windows 3.11.  A powerful desktop computer like this cost in the range of $2000 US.

In 2004, the World Wide Web, or the Web, as it was then called, reached into almost every area of human communication.  People connected to it using everything from desktop computers, to small personal digital assistants to cellular phones to, even, refrigerators!  Broadband connections now extended into homes in many parts of the world, with penetration of high-speed connections with Cable, DSL and Optical lines reaching over 50% in places like South Korea, Sweden, and Canada.  The rate of data was now over 30 terabytes a second.  Good quality point-to-point video conferencing from desktop computers was now within reach of anyone through high-speed connections (for video and audio) and even 56k for audio-conferencing.  And while CD-ROMs were still being produced by textbook publishers to support multimedia delivery of learning resources, people were now excited by the possibilities of DVDs and 4-8 gigabytes of storage.  High-speed computers could easily handle these multimedia and networking challenges: $2000 US would buy you a 3.4 Ghz Pentium 4 processor, with 512 MB RAM, 250 GB of storage, a DVD burner, running Windows XP.

In 2009, the Web is now ubiquitous and reaches into most other media, creating a curious convergence of other media formats within its own network.  Almost any media, from television, to radio, to movies can be found within the Internet (or are actually broadcast via the Internet, and this reality is having a dramatic impact on the knowledge monopolies of dominant sectors of society.  The usage of the Internet in countries like Canada now is approaching 84% of the population.  The rate of growth in data seems to be somewhere in the range of 100% per year, with Internet traffic in the range of 160 terabytes per second.  Point-to-point and multi-point video conferencing is now readily available with consumer grade computers (and some cell phones).  With optical media, music CDs are dying and a new format, BlueRay, is trying to usurp DVDs with the promise of 50 Gigabytes of storage.  The future of physical optical media, however, is being challenged already by the increase in streaming media both at standard and high-definitions.  The latest computers are no longer simply chasing after greater speeds or storage limits, and increasing numbers of users are choosing portability over speed.  Netbooks (small, low-powered notebooks that take advantage of network based media and software) and cloud computing platforms (where applications are based on the network rather than on a local computer) now allow for computers well below a thousand dollars, not to mention phones or music players that are, essentially networked computers.

Innis would certainly marvel at the rates of change that recent telecommunications and computer technologies have achieved, though he would likely have little trouble in extending and refining the tools that he honed in examining the development of Gutenberg technologies into the 21st Century.

Innis’ Cloud Chamber

Innis’ Cloud Chamber

In his 1964 introduction to the first reprinting of Innis’ The Bias of Communication, McLuhan revels in the mosaic structure that he associates with Innis’ later writing style, and draws comparisons between Innis’ approach to social historical writing on communications and the artistic strategies of artists to modern culture, particularly artists associated with symbolism like Baudelaire and Mallarmé.   According to McLuhan, this mosaic approach emerged later in Innis’ career and it allowed him to move away from a conventional, academic point of view to a more dynamic form of analysis that worked to reveal interface relationships, or dynamic interplay between different elements.  For McLuhan, this rhetorical style of “juxtaposing without connectives” is highly generative of new insights, in part because it mimics a form of communication that is closer to dialogue than written exposition but also because it directly involves readers in a series of tests concerning the characteristics of technology and its influence upon different social and historical contexts.  McLuhan likens Innis’ approach to that of a physicist using a cloud chamber: “By bouncing the unknown form against known forms, he discovered the nature of the new or little known form” (9).  The trails made by Innis’ experimental probes outline the cultural disturbances he associated with sudden extensions of communication.  Through these tests, Innis teaches us, as McLuhan sees it “ how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research.  By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture, he showed us how to understand cultures” (11).

McLuhan explored similar ground in a letter he wrote to Innis in 1951.  In that letter, McLuhan provides more details about the importance he sees in the symbolist perception. 

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences. … Retracing becomes in modern historical scholarship the technique of reconstruction (221).

Such retracings or reconstructions are evident in several of the essays collected in The Bias of Communication as well as in Empire and Communication and, indeed, this same technique can be seen in McLuhan’s work in the early 1960’s, particularly with The Gutenberg Galaxy a book that McLuhan refers to as a “footnote to the observations of Innis on the subject of the psychic and social consequences, first of writing then of printing” (8). 

An intriguing characteristic that emerges in McLuhan’s introduction is just how much seems to have changed in the media landscape in the thirteen years between the first publication of Innis’ book and the publication of the second edition, particularly with respect to electronic communications.  McLuhan draws attention to what he considers to be examples of Innis failing to be true to his own mosaic method when he analyzes electronic media, particularly radio and television and goes far to say that this “technological blindness” in Innis is a form of “the nemesis of creativity” (12).   For McLuhan, Innis did not quite manage to recognize the emerging electronic space as a new space rather than merely an extension of mechanized communications media.  This limited perspective is also evident in Innis’ “Appendix 1: A Note on Communication and Electromagnetic Resources in North America”, where Innis gets so caught up in calculating the amount of space that radio stations can broadcast across that he doesn’t notice that space is collapsed and decentralized by the advent of multiple sites of communication.  As was discussed in our class, a significant shift in centre/margin relationships comes about with these new extensions of communication technologies.  The resulting cultural disruptions would be more significant than any of the changes documented by Innis in his earlier works on the cod fisheries or the fur trade and, perhaps, as significant as that brought about by print technologies. 



Marshall McLuhan. (2005). “Introduction to: The Bias of Communication” in Marshall McLuhan Unbound. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

McLuhan, M., Molinaro, M., McLuhan, C., & Toye, W. (1987). Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada.

Minerva’s Owl

Innis’s mosaic writing approach can seem a bit overwhelming at times, particularly when historical examples spanning thousands of years are crammed together within the space of several sentences or paragraphs, often without any rhetorical mortar to demarcate clean and definite lines of relationships, of order, that readers have come to expect from fastidious historians or diligent scholars.  Stepping back from the clipped and carefully juxtaposed details provided by Innis, however, it is possible for an engaged reader to discern dynamic pairings that provide a resonating tension or dialetic for Innis’s analysis: temporal-biased and spatial-biased cultures; monopolies of knowledge and the vernacular; central or imperial power and marginalized or peripheral emergence of new power. Innis arranges the history of Western culture in a manner that draws attention to the interval or oscillation between states, the ripples or disturbances resulting from “sudden extensions of communication” (32).  By putting these states into tension without stepping in to resolve things, Innis invites his readers to make connections within and beyond the immediate text or period.

Coming back to Innis’s  (1947) “Minerva’s” after several years, I find myself dwelling on the relationships between monopolies or oligarchies of knowledge and vernacular, probably because in our contemporary world, there is so much evidence that Minerva’s owl has taken wing with respect to dominant forms of mass media.  When Innis wrote “Minerva’s Owl” in 1947, he was concerned about the danger of the “large-scale mechanization of knowledge” a trend “characterized by imperfect competition and the active creation of monopolies in language which prevent understanding and hasten appeals to force” (32).  Mass media concentrated in the hands of limited numbers of people kept Western culture poised on the edge of an anxious now, tensed up in the present moment, unable to draw upon reflection or dialogue to negotiate difference, and certainly the recent-lived experiences of the Second World War, its deadly nationalism and the extension of communications technologies for command and control warfare reinforced Innis’s concerns.

Moving forward beyond Innis’s considerations of electromagnetic resources (radio and television) to a world of 500 cable channels not much changes in terms of the consolidation of knowledge production and specialization in the hands of a limited few.  However, with the advent of networked telecommunications and the Internet, it is clear that we are seeing significant cultural disturbances, particularly in terms of communication media.  Whereas printed newspapers and corporate television networks dominated channels for public discourse, a range of internet-based technologies now are shifting power to the vernacular, to social interaction within informal networks of self-selecting groups.  And, significantly, within such a network, the power of publication, of broadcast, or distribution is as much in the hands of the oligarchs as it is in the hands of individuals.  I’m sure that were he alive today, Innis would be looking closely at the realignments in culture that are being brought about by the force of electronic communications and the Internet.  Whether or not Innis would see in electronic communication the same potential that McLuhan and Ong saw with respect to a return to an aural condition, or secondary orality, is a question for a later response paper.

References: Innis, Harld Adams. (2008). The Bias of Communication. (2nd ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.