The 20th century has witnessed dramatic developments in the history of media communications as well as human society. During the first half of the last century, electronic media such as the telegraph, radio and television to name a few were invented and became prevalent. Afterwards, the internet came into being and developed at an unprecedented rate to the point where it is now widely accepted that human history has entered into an information age. As claimed by a number of scholars, the appearance of new types of media can bring about dramatic influences on living conditions.
Among them, Harold Innis, pioneer in this area of communication studies, is influential, firstly by employing two dimensions to media, namely time and space, and further, exploring how media shapes the formation of the essence and development of a civilisation. This essay will apply Innis’s communication theories on the biases of communication, oral and written media and monopoly of knowledge in order to analyse the Internet.
In the first place, according to Innis, media can be divided into two types, which are time-biased and space-biased media, determined by its physical characteristics (Innis, 1991).
Time-based media tends to be heavy and not portable so it is relatively stable, such as stone and clay whereas space-biased media are light and easy to transport, such as papyrus and paper (ibid. ). As a consequence of this, Time-biased media has the ability to store information for a relatively long duration of time in a certain area, which encourages the formation of communities and social hierarchies (ibid. ). Moreover, civilisations which are dominated by time-biased media think highly of traditions, community and morals (ibid. ). A good illustration of this is Egypt.
The pyramids left thousands of years ago can be seen as a symbol of their history and hierarchy at that time (Innis, 1950). Comparatively, space-biased media allows for expansion of space but is not able to hold this information over long periods of time (Innis, 1991). In other words, space-biased media is oriented towards only the present and future as compared to time-biased which is oriented to the past as well as the present and future (ibid. ). Accordingly, space-biased civilisations value large extension of territory instead of centralisation (ibid. ).
The invention of space-biased media notably paper has enabled the spread of messages and knowledge, greatly facilitating the administration of far-away places (ibid. ). Today, technology facilitates modern media. Based on Innis’s criteria concerning its great speed, the Internet’s ability to free its users from spatial limitations allows it to be fully space-biased. In fact, traditional forms of electronic media such as radio and television have already achieved the capability to compete with the internet in terms of the speed in which they can transfer information.
However, due to the diverse amount of standard analog signals set by different states which are not compatible with each other, neither radio nor television can always send or receive signals across different administrative regions (Norwood, n. d). Take television for example, in Europe the PAL format was adopted whereas U. S. and Canada adopted NTSC formats (ibid. ). Thus, although these forms of media can achieve full space-biased on the basis of their physical characteristics, limitations are set by humans to serve their own interests.
This is unlike the Internet, which has benefited from a unique point-to-point communications model allowing its users to have access to it easily and gain information instantly without spatial boundaries (Grove and Coddington, 2005). It is said that geographical space has disappeared with the introduction of the Internet, allowing people to communicate freely. Next, as Innis has stated, every kind of media is actually a combination of both space-biased and time-biased media, which is just a matter of bias (Innis, 1990).
Although the Internet is treated as a space-biased medium undisputedly and sometimes seemingly arbitrarily, it can in some way enjoy time-biased features as well. To clarify, the Internet adopts a distributed information storage model which means information is saved in different computers in a distributed manner, so if some information is lost from one computer, it still can be accessed in another (Kleinberg, 2006). Furthermore, along with the development of computer technology, a series of new data storage devices further make up for its duration, for example current popular data-sharing softwares such as BT (ibid. . With enlarging storage abilities, information stored on the Internet can last for long periods of time (ibid. ). According to Innis, in history, few empires with a notable exception of the Greek Empire can maintain a balanced relationship between space and time. Often there is the likelihood that one will be given priority over the other (Innis, 1950). Nonetheless, as analyzed above, the Internet has achieved a relatively stable balance between space and time. Following this, corresponding to the two biases of communication, there are both oral and written media.
Oral communication can be seen as time-binding because in oral societies, knowledge can only be passed through generations by word of mouth which generally take place within groups or communities (Innis, 1990). Also, because memory is limited, it is necessary to be particularly selective about knowledge, as a result of which, knowledge not related to maintaining tradition is difficult to be handed down (ibid. ). Hence, societies with oral-tradition value continuity and tradition (ibid. ).
Conversely, written-media lead to the emergence of writing which encouraged critical thinking and brought about the boom of science since there was no longer any need to be highly selective about knowledge. Therefore people can detach themselves from knowledge or culture by labelling themselves as a reader instead of as a speaker or listener (Rawski, 1987). Innis himself has a bias with oral society. From his perspective, oral societies such as the ancient Greek civilisation captures the original spirits and values of a society which is far more profound than the logical and scientific oriented pursuits of written societies (Innis, 1950).
The internet, as a combination of almost all previous forms of media including the telephone, print media, radio and television, can be seen as an advantageous fusion of both oral and written media. This can be well illustrated by the phenomenon of the “virtual Chinese family” in Canada. It refers to the rise of those Chinese families of which their children study in Canada whereas other family members stay in China (Chang, 2007) Traditionally, Chinese people have many time-biased features.
Take as an example filial piety, which has the meaning of being respectful for elder generation and ancestors. It is a well-known virtue in China (ibid. ). Previously, Chinese people showed filial piety by uniting a family together and in most cases adopting oral media (ibid). In contrast, with the help of the Internet, these virtual Chinese families can talk via skype or write e-mails whenever they wish to (ibid. ). In this case, it can be seen that the Internet provides new applications or forms of oral and written media with its own unique advantages such as 24-hour availability.
However, as Innis and Macluhan both highlighted, it is its social implications, such as the emergence of monopolies of knowledge, centralised authorities and uneven distribution of power rather than the aural or written nature that should be the focus of studying oral and written media (Innis, 1990). Because written media requires the capability of reading which is relatively demanding compared with oral media since it takes years to develop, a hierarchy of knowledge is very likely to be created and with it, centralization of power (ibid. . This group of elites tend to dominate social institutions and this dominance tends to further strengthen their status, such as during the Roman Empire when reading was a privileged ability (Hadrill, 1988). Apart from this, in modern times, mechanization resulting from technologies should also take responsibility for monopolies of knowledge as well as the disappearance of innovative ideas by causing “complexity and confusion” (Innis, 1990). This has been, as Innis pointed out, a major problem in Western civilisations today (ibid. . Responsively, many believe that the prevalent use of the Internet allows for free thinking as well as a meaningful way for individuals to gain knowledge. On the one hand, it is a fact that abundant information can be equally accessed and shared on the Internet. The costs of distributing information using the Internet are very small compared with sharing information using other forms of media such as television. Meanwhile, one can easily become a producer of information rather than simply a receiver.
All an individual needs to have is a very basic knowledge of using the Internet. Rising blogspheres and forums are good examples of the public making use of the Internet against centralisation of knowledge. On the other hand, there are competing voices maintaining that the Internet can also strengthen monopolies of knowledge by enlarging the knowledge gap. This concept was firstly put forward by Tichenor (1965, cited in Yaron, 1996) and his colleagues, suggesting that new media enlarges the gap between people who obtain rich and poor information.
Those with lower social status tend to make good use of the Internet to improve their conditions but eventually because of a lack of good education or controls over its uses, they find difficulties in competing with those who have higher social status (ibid. ). For example, although basic uses of the Internet can be learned quickly and easily, such as browsing web pages, advanced techniques, such as programming are beyond the acknowledgement of ordinary individuals (Soules, 2007). Likewise, the gap between developed states or areas and less developed states or areas will be increased as well.
Statistics show that 71. 7% of the population in North America have Internet usage whereas in Africa it is only 4. 7% (Internet Usage Statistics, 2008). In conclusion, by applying Innis’s media communication theory to the Internet, as analyzed in this essay, it is conceivable that the Internet can be not only a space-biased medium but also a time-biased medium. Moreover, by integrating various forms of other media, the Internet has become a form of media which encompasses the features of all other forms of media, both oral and written characteristics.
Then, concerning its influences on the ways society is organized, it can at the same time promote decentralization and strengthen monopolies of knowledge. However, there have been critics arguing that Innis focuses only on the effects of media on society but not the effects of society on the media. His theory tends to be technologically determined which is true to a certain extent (Chandler, 2000). Thus, it is vital to bear in mind that media has no life itself and it is people who eventually determine whether media will be beneficial or not. References: Berland, J. 2000) ‘Space at the Margin: Critical Theory and Colonial Space after Innis’. In Charles, R. A. and William, J. B. (ed) Harold Innis in the new century : reflections and refractions. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press 281-304 Chang, K. Y. (2007) Time in Space: Rise of the Virtual Chinese Family [online], Available at: [14 April 2008] Chandler, D. (2000) Technological or Media Determinism [online], Available at: [12 April 2008] Grove, D. A. and Coddington, P. D. (2005) Analytical Models of Probability Distributions for MPI Point-to-Point Communication Times on Distributed
Memory Parallel Computers [online], Available at: ; http://www. dhpc. adelaide. edu. au/reports/163/dhpc-163. pdf; [15 April 2008] Hadrill, A. W. (1988) Review Article: Greek Knowledge, Roman Power [online], Available at: ; http://www. jstor. org/pss/269739; [15 April 2008] Innis, H. A. (1950) Empire and Communications. Toronto : University of Toronto Press Innis, H. A. (1991) The Bias of Communication. Toronto : University of Toronto Press Internet Usage Statistics. (2008) World Internet Usage and Population Statistics [online], Available at: [10 April 2008] Kleinberg, J. 2006) The Structure of Information Networks, [online], Available at: ; http://www. cs. cornell. edu/Courses/cs685/2006sp/ ; [16 April 2008] Norwood, M. UCSC Media Services: Glossary [online], Available at: [7 April 2008] Rawski, E. S. (1987) Reviewed work(s): The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society [online], Available at: [13 Aril 2008] Soules, M. (2007) Harold Adams Innis: The Bias of Communications & Monopolies of Power [online], Available at: [8 April 2008] Yaron, M. N. (1996) Knowledge Gap Hypothesis [online], Available at: ; http://iml. jou. ufl. edu/projects/students/yaron/kg0. htm; [10 April 2008]
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