Empire and Communications

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* Empire and Communications. By Harold Innis. Dundun, 2007 (1950).

URL = https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire_and_Communications

" a sweeping historical survey of how communications media influence the rise and fall of empires "


From the Wikipedia:

"He traced the effects of media such as stone, clay, papyrus, parchment and paper from ancient to modern times.

Innis argued that the "bias" of each medium toward space or toward time helps to determine the nature of the civilization in which that medium dominates. "Media that emphasize time are those that are durable in character such as parchment, clay and stone," he writes in his introduction. These media tend to favour decentralization. "Media that emphasize space are apt to be less durable and light in character, such as papyrus and paper." These media generally favour large, centralized administrations. Innis believed that to persist in time and to occupy space, empires needed to strike a balance between time-biased and space-biased media. Such a balance is likely to be threatened, however, when monopolies of knowledge exist favouring some media over others.

Empire and Communications examines the impact of media such as stone, clay, papyrus and the alphabet on the empires of Egypt and Babylonia. It also looks at the oral tradition in ancient Greece; the written tradition and the Roman Empire; the influence of parchment and paper in medieval Europe and the effects of paper and the printing press in modern times.


Innis divides the history of the empires and civilizations he will examine into two periods, one for writing and the other for printing. "In the writing period we can note the importance of various media such as the clay tablet of Mesopotamia, the papyrus roll in the Egyptian and in the Graeco-Roman world, parchment codex in the late Graeco-Roman world and the early Middle Ages, and paper after its introduction in the Western world from China."[7] Innis notes that he will concentrate on paper as a medium in the printing period along with the introduction of paper-making machinery at the beginning of the 19th century and the use of wood pulp in the manufacture of paper after 1850.

He is quick to add, however, that it would be presumptuous to conclude that writing alone determined the course of civilizations. Historians naturally focus on writing because it endures. "We are apt to overlook the significance of the spoken word," he writes, "and to forget that it has left little tangible remains."[4] For Innis, that tendency poses a problem. "It is scarcely possible for generations disciplined in the written and the printed tradition to appreciate the oral tradition." Therefore, the media biases of one civilization make understanding other peoples difficult, if not impossible.

"A change in the type of medium implies a change in the type of appraisal and hence makes it difficult for one civilization to understand another." As an example, Innis refers to our tendency to impose a modern conception of time on past civilizations. "With the dominance of arithmetic and the decimal system, dependent apparently on the number of fingers or toes, modern students have accepted the linear measure of time," he writes. "The dangers of applying this procrustean device in the appraisal of civilizations in which it did not exist illustrate one of numerous problems."

Innis also contrasts the strikingly different effects of writing and speaking. He argues that "writing as compared with speaking involves an impression at the second remove and reading an impression at the third remove. The voice of a second-rate person is more impressive than the published opinion of superior ability.""