The medium and the recurring message
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 20 February 2016)

The thinking of Harold Adams Innis, one of the commanding figures in Canadian scholarship, took a startling turn during the last phase of his life. In the first half of the 20th century, Innis was known for his "staple theory" of Canadian history. Namely, that our economy and culture depended on our ability to gather or grow the staples of life -- fish, fur, wheat, etc. As a University of Toronto professor of political economy, he developed that theme over three decades. He was quoted everywhere Canadian history was taught.

But then he turned to another, more complex subject: the role of communications in the formation of societies. His new interest surfaced in six lectures he delivered at Oxford in 1948, published as Empire and Communications in 1950. Tracing the effects of papyrus, parchment and paper, he suggested that methods of communications profoundly influence the rise and fall of empires. Ever since, scholars and the rest of us have tried to understand the unconscious effects of changes in communications technology.

In The Bias of Communication, a book published in 1951, the year before he died, Innis argued that each medium has different consequences. The rise of advertising in the 20th century created a certain mentality, "present-mindedness." Those who understand the world through mass media tend to think that what happens now is important and the past is irrelevant. Innis believed that attitude degraded "elements of permanence essential to cultural activity."

He thought the rise of the printing press and the radio had "enormously increased the difficulty of thought." He warned against the "pernicious influence of American advertising." He disliked "American imperialism in all its attractive guises."

My column last Saturday dealt with the widespread belief that the Internet has harmed literacy, distracting readers and made them less capable of the serious attention that reading demands.

While I find that hard to believe, many of my readers found it all too credible. One quoted two long paragraphs from a prize-winning novel, noting that he wouldn't have had any trouble with it in his pre-Internet days, whereas now it looked impenetrable. John Bonnett, an intellectual historian at Brock University, offered the opinion that "much current anxiety would be dispelled if we recognized that people in the 19th and 20th centuries were as worried about information overload as we are." He quoted George Gissing's famous book about journalism in England, New Grub Street (1904), which commented on the short attention span encouraged by newspapers. "No article in the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs." Popular newspapers were directed at a generation taught by undemanding schools; young men and women incapable of sustained reading. "People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on buses and trams. What they want is the lightest and frothiest."

Going back a little farther, Socrates feared the development of writing itself. It was replacing the knowledge carried in the brain. Readers would cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.

Those who are still influenced by Innis notice the impact of "communications" in everything that comes up. I thought of him when reading a New Yorker piece about the modern history of Turkey.

In the 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was determined to turn the old Ottoman Empire into a modern, Western nation, he ordered that the Arabic script be replaced by a Latin alphabet. If the Turks wrote their language in Western letters, they would, as he saw it, turn into modern people like those in the West. That was a communications strategy.

Recently, Elif Batuman, a young Turkish-American writer, discovered that when she wears a head scarf while working in Turkey, she's treated with more kindness than when she goes about bareheaded. She realized that her head scarf was a form of "communication." In a nation that seems to be returning to traditional Islamic practices, she was communicating that she identified with contemporary Turkish women.

Thousands have been influenced by Innis, but only Marshall McLuhan turned it into a career. He was flattered when he learned that Innis had put his first book, The Mechanical Bride, on the reading list of a fourth-year economics course. McLuhan absorbed and developed Innis's idea that to understand the effects of communications media, form mattered more than content. McLuhan and Innis together convinced the world that media are key elements in social change and transformation.

In 1962, the University of Toronto published McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, his first widely noticed book. A few years later, in a rare burst of modesty, he wrote: "I am pleased to think of my own book The Gutenberg Galaxy as a footnote to the observations of Innis."

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