How Prometheus Is Bound: Applying the Innis Method of Communications Analysis to the Internet

Catherine Frost

Abstract: This article argues that Harold Innis' method of communications analysis is sufficiently modular that it can be applied to a medium not addressed in his own work - the Internet. It further argues that Innis developed this method because he believed each new medium faces us with a moral choice, and that his concern for the space/time balance represents a moral level of analysis focused on a medium's implications for freedom and humanism. Once applied to the Internet, this analytical method identifies reasons to be concerned for the social and political impact of this technology.

Résumé : Cet article soutient que la méthode d'analyse en communications d'Harold Innis est suffisamment modulable pour pouvoir s'appliquer à un média qu'il n'a pas pu étudier de son vivant, Internet. L'article soutient en outre qu'Innis a développé sa méthode parce qu'il croyait que chaque nouveau média nous donne l'occasion de faire un choix moral, et parce que son souci pour un équilibre espace/temps représente une approche qui est elle-même morale, axée comme elle l'est sur les conséquences des médias pour la liberté et l'humanisme. Cette méthode analytique, quand on l'applique à Internet, indique qu'on a raison de se préoccuper des impacts sociaux et politiques de cette technologie.

Harold Innis' communications work is characterized by a fact-rich, eclectic writing style that plays on contrasts. While his intellectual style is inimitable, his analytical style (as I will argue in this article) is not, which means it should be possible to undertake an Innisian-style assessment of a medium that Innis himself never encountered. The first step in doing so is to set out the elements of Innis' method of media analysis in modular form, and that is the work of the first half of this article. In the second half, I apply this method to the medium of the Internet and ask what an Innisian analysis can tell us about the rise, adoption, and impact of this new technology.

Before proceeding, however, I should mention one clarification and one qualification. First, although the Internet includes a range of communications activities, what I have in mind in this discussion is often the World Wide Web. It is not easy to isolate this part of the Internet since it blends into other operations such as e-mail, file transfers, chat programs, et cetera. For this reason, I will speak of the Internet, or Net, while recognizing that it is a multi-headed beast. Second, in undertaking this project there is an obvious risk of oversimplifying Innis' complex work. This may, unfortunately, be an inevitable consequence of an attempt to draw features of an "Innis method" from an otherwise rich and elaborate account of communications history. The test of its usefulness, however, should be whether it points us toward relevant features of a medium's use and development, and whether it better equips us to recognize the challenges each new medium presents. With these objectives in mind, let me now turn to a discussion of what makes up the Innis method.

What constitutes a new medium?

I want to start with a basic but important question: how do we know when we are dealing with a new medium? Although Innis talked about the importance of new media and their impact on knowledge, it is not immediately clear what actually constituted a new medium in his view. At times he talked about writing as a single communication form, and other times he devoted great attention to the differences between pamphlets and newspapers. The answer is, of course, that for Innis there were many shades of difference between and within media. Nevertheless, in his writings two forms take precedence: the spoken word and the written word. He acknowledged that these are by no means the only ways in which humans can communicate. But perhaps because of its significance for modern times, Innis tended to focus on the question of written versus oral communication.

In his essay "Minerva's Owl" (1964, p. 3), Innis briefly lists the various stages of writing from hieroglyphics to cuneiform right up to modern printing, and adds to the end of this list the new media of cinema and radio. The latter two are actually developments in the oral form that enable us to replicate and relay spoken communications - such that the speaker no longer needs to be present in person. It is notable that throughout the long swath of history that Innis surveys, the basic medium of spoken communications - the human voice - remained essentially unchanged until these developments.

The written word, on the other hand, has seen many changes and is therefore a better illustration of Innis' standard for distinguishing new media. What distinguishes the stages of writing is, not surprisingly, the media used - quite literally the tools, materials, and physical methods involved. Thus (1) clay and the stylus mark the stage of cuneiform in Ancient Mesopotamia; (2) papyrus and the brush represent the Egyptian hieroglyphic and hieratic stage that leads up to the Graeco-Roman period; (3) the Roman Empire employs the reed pen and the alphabet; and (4) parchment and the pen are used in Europe until the tenth century.

Although Innis did, in other places, list more subtle evolutions, such as the number of columns used to write on papyrus or vellum, the above list seems to constitute his most basic breakdown of communications developments. In which case a new medium is that which employs a new material, tool, or process. Changes in these factors therefore imply important changes for communications, knowledge, and ultimately, civilization.

Situational factors: Pre-existing conditions, inherent characteristics, and monopoly potential

Change does not take place in a vacuum. It occurs in specific times and places, and in already existing civilizations. Innis generally enumerated communications changes in a narrative or historical style, but in order to divine the method behind his narrative, it's important to identify common elements to his discussion of media change. Innis generally dealt with the introduction of new media by focusing on three dimensions of the situation under consideration. First, he was attentive to the pre-existing geographic and cultural conditions in which a new medium arose and was adopted; second, he detailed the economic and technological features associated with the medium itself; and third, he was concerned with a medium's potential to influence content and to foster new social and economic monopolies down the line.

Perhaps the best illustration of Innis' sensitivity to pre-existing conditions is his account of the different civilizations that arose around the Tigris and Euphrates and the Nile river systems. He held that the regular flooding of Egypt's one main river created a particular form of society characterized by the "unified control of an absolute authority," which, despite other similarities, was not duplicated in Mesopotamia, where irregular and unpredictable flooding meant that the land was "centrifugal in its influence" (1964, pp. 34, 96). So while Egypt became preoccupied with a medium that could enhance the prestige of kings and eventually developed the grand medium of tomb-writing or hieroglyphics, Mesopotamia developed as several religious city-states along with a dynastic ruler, and evolved a system of clay-writing, or cuneiform, more suited to distributed administration.

As well as geography, Innis recognized the significance of cultural conditions in determining how successfully or extensively a new medium was adopted. In the more modern era these conditions included the impact of language on the development of newspapers - a medium that could spread more quickly in unilingual America than in multilingual Europe. Likewise, the decision by France to suppress domestic printing while encouraging the export of rags for papermaking was a sociocultural condition that temporarily restrained the influence of the book in that country while it encouraged publishing abroad. And finally, Innis attributed the success of Greek civilization to a combination of cultural and geographic conditions. He believed that language differences along with Greece's location across the sea from the neighbouring Egyptian empire enabled it to "escape the more subtle aspects of that culture" (1964, p. 11). Consequently the Greeks were able to import the Phoenician alphabet while maintaining their own oral civilization. Innis' attention to these pre-existing conditions conveys an important message: it is not a foregone conclusion that all media will succeed in all places or times. The extent of adoption (and, therefore, the extent of impact) of a new medium is constrained by the geographical and cultural situation into which it arrives.

Once a new medium has begun to spread in a civilization, the extent of its adoption is also shaped by factors arising from its own inherent characteristics. Thus, because it involved a time-consuming and skilled process, hieroglyphics could never become a household medium. Papyrus was also limited since it involved writing on rolls and required constant re-copying of the delicate material. When printing finally arrived it was still faced with the limitations of the hand press along with a need for supplies of rags, skilled printers, and the development of workable typefaces. Simply put, a medium that was costly in terms of time or money was at a disadvantage when it came to widespread use. A new medium also implied the development of new economic phenomena, so that advertising became a significant business practice only after the emergence of newspapers. Media, Innis argued, create their own markets by encouraging the spread of literacy and creating an appetite for scriptures, codified law, news, political views, or literature. So in considering a new medium, we need to pay close attention both to the practical process involved in creating and circulating the message in this form, and to the demand or expectations that may be generated as a result of people developing a taste for its new content.

In the end, Innis was most concerned with the potential for a new medium to effect changes at a broad civilizational level, and so we must shift from considering pre-existing conditions or inherent characteristics to a more forward-looking perspective. As is well known, he believed each new medium would shape or reshape systems of social organization. He often summed up this effect as involving the creation of "monopolies of knowledge." But there are in fact two distinct forms of monopoly at work in Innis' writings. The first involves a monopoly of the content of ideas, the second a monopoly of socioeconomic control. Attempting to foresee these outcomes - forecasting the new circumstances that will be ushered in with the arrival of a new medium - is an essential part of a complete analysis of that medium.

In the first case - that of monopolies of content - although the very horizons of thought are broadened by a new medium, such developments also tend to focus thought in a particular direction and on particular content. Papyrus, for example, leant itself to the propagation of law and scriptures, while the spread of printing led to a demand for novels and eventually gave rise to Romanticism. Yet these are relatively minor shifts in the tectonic plates that underlie our knowledge or comprehension of the world around us. A more profound shift took place with the move from the "graven image" of hieroglyphics to the written letter, since this change led to a "concentration on the abstract" that "opened the way for an advance from the blood relationship to universal ethical standards" (1964, p. 39). In other words, in the wake of the alphabet, abstract content not only became more prevalent in communications, it also came to dominate Western society's moral order - framing issues in ways that were not widespread before. Abstract universal ideals (such as human rights, or the equality of persons) thus come to exercise a kind of monopoly over how we think about ethical questions.

In an economic sense too, media create monopolies. In ancient times, the reliance on scribes created a privileged class and fostered bureaucracy, while in more modern times a similar effect was evident in the control of newspapers and publishing facilities. Monopoly for Innis implied rigidity, making a civilization vulnerable to forces of change, which could not readily be absorbed by its inflexible social order. He believed that monopolies or oligopolies of knowledge, both economic and epistemological, would build up until the "equilibrium is disturbed" (1964, p. 4) and a civilization declined. Estimating the monopoly potential of a new medium, therefore, is like taking a kind of civilizational seismic reading - it helps us determine where pressure is building up within the system and helps us map the major societal fault lines that develop after the arrival of a new medium.

Freedom and humanism: The moral message of the space/time bias

Thus far, the discussion of Innis' method has focused on questions specific to particular new media. But there is a broader context within which these questions must be set in order to adequately approximate Innis' approach. There is a powerful moral voice speaking through his communications work, and it carries a message about the achievements possible in a good society and the brutalizing effects of a bad one. Therefore, I'll start this exploration of the moral side of Innis' work by asking, what constitutes a good society, in his view? This question leads us directly to his celebrated time/space distinction in the bias of media. By identifying the moral significance Innis attaches to this divide, we can work back to identify the circumstances we need to be alert to in new media.

What, in Innis' view, constitutes a good civilization? There are two potential historical candidates for the honour. First, the Greek world, and second, the Byzantine Empire. Innis admired Greek civilization because of its balanced social order. The Greeks developed a strong and viable culture based on an oral rather than written tradition, which provided a means to "unite scattered groups in a consciousness of Greek culture" (1964, p.136). They even imported writing, but wisely kept it subordinate to their oral tradition. So long as the oral order reigned supreme, their civilization remained secure, and in the end, Greece does not so much decline as take on new life in Roman civilization.

The other success story in Innis' view was the Byzantine Empire. Where the Western Roman Empire had failed, the Byzantine Empire had managed a solution to the "problem of longevity" (1995, p. 365). The solution, ironically, lay in "the tenacity of Greek language and culture" (1964, p. 25). While the Western Empire cultivated the tradition of Roman law as a response to the rise of individualism, the Eastern Empire was able to hold on to older concepts of religious and cultural continuity. The ultimate test is that Rome fell in 476, Constantinople in 1453.

The good civilization, therefore, is one that can successfully resolve the problem of longevity, and it is their dominant media that equip societies to tackle this challenge. This brings us to Innis' "bias of communications" concept. Innis held that each medium would have a relative strength in terms of extending the temporal or geographic reach of a civilization. A time-biased medium, like the spoken word, is the premier tool for combining cultural reproduction with cultural flexibility over the long haul, since in its highest form - exemplified in the oral dialectic of Classical Greece - it can accommodate a flexible and multifaceted expression of ideas in a way few other media can adequately replicate. Alternatively, reliance on a space-biased medium like the written word, although it has proved superior as a means of co-ordinating far-flung empires, will eventually cut short the life of a civilization. Ideally, a balance should be struck between the twin dimensions of extent and duration, but Innis held that when this balancing act fails, more often than not it is due to a neglect of time.

If left at this level, however, Innis' space/time distinction is missing an important part of the picture. More was at stake than the staying power of civilizations. The civility of civilizations, their worthiness as articulations of the human community, mattered as well. Richard Noble has characterized Innis' moral stance as involving a Whigish-style liberalism, in keeping with the work of Burke and Hume, and argues that Innis favoured time-biased media and the institutions of oral culture because they helped preserve freedom against the encroachments of monopoly and dogma (1999, pp. 31-45). This, he says, amounts to a liberal moral theory, but one with a less individualist bent than we are accustomed to in the contemporary era. But as Noble himself points out, Innis' liberal goals remain subject to his fundamental interest in the space/time balance. Noble casts this as a kind of utilitarian concern for the ultimate setting of liberty, but I suspect there is something else at work. Innis' liberalism was set within the context of a broader humanism. He is interested in freedom not so that societies might "progress" in a utilitarian sense - since he would be skeptical of any such objective - but so that people could live free of manipulation, upheaval, and brutality. The best way to ensure this was to maintain a balance of space and time by upholding the oft-neglected sense of time in modern society. Let me try to illustrate how this humanist concern informed and motivated his work.

It is clear from his writings that in the equation that is civilization, Innis preferred to see the balance tipped in favour of time. His fear was that without adequate knowledge of the past, without a sense of continuity, we would descend into an obsession with the immediate. This obsession posed a threat to civilizational survival because we must appreciate our past to understand our future - we must be able to engage what Eric Havelock called the "foresight of the historian" (1951, p. 86).

In The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, Havelock reflected on the meaning behind Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound. Innis read and was effected by Havelock's work, which argued that the gift of modern technology, although it aided man in some regards, also enslaved him. The significance of the drama for modern audiences, Havelock believed, was that it involved an essential humanism in its portrayal of the ordeal of Prometheus. For the Greeks man could still be the measure of all things, but moderns find themselves reduced to utter insignificance by the discoveries of science. In a passage that Innis refers to in "The Strategy of Culture," Havelock says:

To know these things, and to live with this knowledge is the special burden of our age. Intellectual man of the nineteenth century was the first to estimate with precision his total lowliness, his absolute nullity, in space and time. That is the secret shock administered to our culture. It becomes our secret despair. (1951, p. 6)

Only by recovering a sense of time on a truly human scale, by rejecting the pressure of science toward the immediate as the only value, can man restore humanism and foresight, Havelock advised.

The moral message to Innis' communications work certainly involves a concern for freedom, for cultural flexibility, and for civilizational longevity. But the backdrop for these objectives was his conviction, like Havelock, that we needed to return to the human scale and that the human experience should again be fully reflected in our dominant communications. Innis' liberalism and his humanism are not at odds - if anything, the former proceeds from the latter. An analysis that follows Innis' method would therefore be incomplete until it accounted for the liberal and humanist implications of a new medium.

The real test of this exercise is to see whether Innis' method can help us pinpoint the character and significance of a new medium - one never envisioned in his own time. What follows is a brief attempt to apply the Innis method to the new medium of the Internet. Much more could be said on this topic than will be covered in this discussion, and it merits a more extensive treatment to do it justice. I use it here only as an illustrative example to establish that Innis still has an important message for us when it comes to appreciating the media environment in which we are immersed, and preparing us for the social and moral consequences of our communications habits.

Is the Internet a new medium?

While strictly speaking digital telecommunications and modem-equipped computers are not new, the structure and organization of Internet communications is radically different from what went before it. The most significant feature of the new system is that the actual communications process does not require any centralized control. Hitherto, telecommunications wisdom held that the intelligence in a network had to be centralized. But Internet messages are in a sense self-directed, with multiple packets of information each wending its way to a given address helped along by the intelligence in the individual computers through which they pass. The other component that was necessary for making the Internet work was a common protocol, a rudimentary computer language that enabled computers of all kinds, regardless of make or operating system, to handle Internet information. That standard protocol was TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). This is significant because the use of common communications standards is the sine qua non of the Internet. Without some common language the system would be reduced to a modern-day Tower of Babel.

Situational factors in the rise and spread of the Internet

Once the "newness" of a new medium is established, the Innis method begins by asking about the conditions into which a medium is introduced. In the case of the Internet, the new technology was introduced into a world characterized by a powerful drive toward economic liberalism, where the globe itself was fast becoming the relevant geographic unit. This, of course, presented a communications challenge for operations that needed to be highly mobile or to co-ordinate with ventures in distant locations or different time zones. The Internet was also born into an era of political conservatism and owes its origins to Cold War paranoia. Packet switching - the key innovation in the Internet's genesis - was originally conceived of as a military technology to decentralize the telecommunications system. But the "network of networks" idea only truly came into its own with the participation of universities, which wanted a way to share computing power. The National Science Foundation (or NSFnet) system brought on board a co-operative, open vision that saw the Internet as a shared resource, and individual volunteer academics were largely responsible for its development as such up until the mid 1990s. Other factors at the time of the Internet's genesis include the breakup, in the 1970s and 1980s, of telecommunications giants at the same time as the personal computer was becoming an invaluable business tool and a not uncommon household appliance. Yet users were still being offered little alternative to the standard communications model wherein consumers were passive receptors of remotely determined information flows. The situation was ripe for change.

These were the pre-existing circumstances into which the Internet arrived, but what of its own inherent characteristics? What is it about the technology itself that determines its use and popularity? Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of the Internet is the economic and technological cost currently involved in becoming a user. The initial investment (a computer, modem or other connectivity system, and Internet service) can easily run into the thousands of dollars, and although there may be more affordable short-term access through Internet cafés, libraries, or universities, in this case the investment has merely been taken on by someone else. Even the much-heralded wireless Internet, which promises to lower expenses for individual users, will still require considerable investment at some point during adoption. Nor is the Internet in reality a low-skill medium. Although software has been developed to allow users to "point and click" their way around the Net, the medium remains a complex one, requiring a high degree of technological literacy to fully master its many features. Despite claims that anyone anywhere can be a content provider on the Net, the technological knowledge required to, say, create a Web site or establish a list-serv is likely beyond most users.

Innis also worried that reading the written word was an isolating experience. Proponents of the Internet claim that because of its interactive nature and its capacity to support multimedia communications, the medium has overcome this problem. And it's certainly possible that in the case of the Internet the whole - where it combines text, image, and sound - is greater than the sum of its parts. Yet the facts are that the Internet still contains a great deal of text information (e-mail represents up to 85% of Internet use), predominantly in English (approximately 80% of Web sites are in English), and in practical terms only one person can use a computer terminal at a time (Castells, 2001, pp. 253, 264). Nor does the Internet require that there be anyone present on the receiving end at the time a message or other content is sent. Although it can support instantaneous exchange, this is not the Internet's primary use or advantage. By reinforcing the written word in a physically and temporally isolated environment, the Internet displays some of the same alienating tendencies as written media.

This does not tell the whole story, however, as there is some evidence that Internet use positively correlates with real-world sociability and civic engagement, although the effect is not a large one (Castells, 2001, p. 122; Galston, 2002, p. 52). Is there something new, then, in the way text is employed or delivered via the Internet that may mitigate the alienating effect that so concerned Innis?

Perhaps the most innovative element in Internet communications - and therefore the most difficult one to assess in terms of potential impact - is the development known as hypertext. Strictly speaking, hypertext describes pre-identified links within a given text or image format that enable users to follow any one of a range of connections to different but related information. The user-defined nature of the information flow is something that few other media can accommodate, and this multi-associative form of thinking may represent a further conceptual abstraction, along the lines of that fostered by the arrival of writing. So we can speculate that Innis would have been, at the very least, wary of the development. But at the same time it promises to break down the linear communications experience necessitated by the written word, and in doing so may bring back into the process a level of unpredictability and "fuzziness" that better reflects real-world complexity.

The huge popularity of e-mail, meanwhile, points to another significant feature of the Internet. The Internet connects the many to the many, without a centralized source of communications content. In contrast to traditional broadcast or print media, therefore, the Internet brings with it a personal dimension. The content of the medium is, in many ways, other people - their views, tastes, opinions, knowledge, et cetera. So although this communication does not usually take place in "real time" - something Innis would clearly be concerned about - it still accommodates a highly individualized form of communication and exchange.

Ironically, though, this new potential for communication can easily translate into a breakdown of communication. Even keen supporters of the Internet's potential worry about the loss of shared meaning that might result from reliance on such a self-selected and self-defined medium. Manuel Castells, for instance, suggests that the Internet fosters a kind of "networked individualism" that may leave a society "potentially autistic" (2001, pp. 131, 203). Already one study of on-line groups has revealed a consistent failure to engage in effective exchange with others, with contributions instead taking the form of multiple isolated expressions of opinion (albeit opinions largely shared by other group members - again through self-selection). The "unrequited" nature of the so-called dialogue reflected, in the views of the study's author, an "attenuated" social and political sphere, and he puts this failure down to the character of Internet communications, which enables participation without responsibility or reciprocity (Wilhelm, 1998, p. 329).

An Innisian analysis also calls on us to be aware of a medium's monopoly potential, and there are indications that the Net may boost the fortunes of some at the expense of others and that it may also, however subtly, be influencing the ways we think and what we think about. Although it seems that just about anything goes on the Internet, Innis tells us that a medium will be most effective for certain types of information. The original and perhaps most pervasive content on the Internet involves popular culture. Music, films, sports, or popular political issues such as ecology and free speech are all stalwarts of the Internet culture. Most users prefer not to read through lengthy texts via this medium, although information may be downloaded for later reference. On the other hand, the Internet is a good location for posting general-use information such as consumer information from business or government, since the content can be easily updated and consumers can provide direct feedback. Above all, Web-based information has to be catchy. Lose a user's interest and she will simply move on to another site. As one consultant advised his clients, being successful on the Net means that content providers must "keep in mind what the end user came here for: entertainment, useful information or to solve a problem" (Falconer, 1996, p. 63).

The Internet can also be used to boost the accessibility of other resources - be it library catalogues, rare historical documents, or other social and cultural resources. But again there may be perverse effects in play. This information explosion, especially in the absence of quality-control processes, may serve to compound the problem of cultural or historical awareness by broadening the range of available information without necessarily deepening our connection to any part of it. So it is not clear that enhanced access will translate into enhanced awareness.

At the same time the highly user-defined structure of Internet communications may be creating a new demand in terms of communications practices. The original model of the Internet was based on unfettered access to others through the medium along with open sharing of common resources. Setting aside specialized data resources in areas such as academics, financial services, or the porn industry, subscriber-based ventures have generally been more the exception than the rule on-line, and the challenge has been for companies to make money from a medium where users have come to expect free access. In addition to open access, users also have the option to engage in an unprecedented level of self-representation on-line. Internet communications allow identities to be created and re-created, concealed, faked, or revealed, all in a way that is hard to verify or question. As one user put it, on the Internet, "I am as I speak" (Lessig, 1999, p. 66). Taken together, these developments suggest that while much of the Internet functions as an as-needed "instant information" source, it also favours communications that take the form of open, multiform, and self-defined information exchanges.

Along with his concern for monopolies of content, Innis also warned that even the most revolutionary of new communications technologies would eventually settle into a monopolistic economic pattern. While it existed as a non-conventional technology at the periphery of society, the Internet could sustain a more egalitarian spirit, but it is no longer a technology for specialists alone. So the question is, if some monopolies (like broadcasting and long distance) are losing out with the rise of the Internet, what new ones are in the making?

First, in terms of social consequences, the Internet is already disproportionately populated by the more affluent (Castells, 2001, p. 249). But, this development aside, the Internet forges a new cleavage - this one between those that have the specialized technological know-how to create advanced content and architecture on the Internet, and those who are content to merely access these materials. Labelled the "digital divide," this skills gap between producer/users and consumer/users means, at a minimum, that there is differential impact when it comes to the social and economic consequences of the technology. As science fiction writer William Gibson quipped, "The future is already here - it's just unevenly distributed" ("Broadband Blues," The Economist, 2001).

Second, in terms of strict economics, as The Economist put it in the early days of the Internet boom, "It takes money to stand out in the Internet's sprawl"("The Accidental Superhighway," 1995). Since then, the din and crush of content on the Net, combined with technologies that enable browsers to point a user toward one Web site rather than another, has resulted in the dominance of certain sites for particular topic areas. A site such as eBay can command up to 80% of the market for on-line auctions, and recent research found that 60% of users' on-line hours were spent at only 14 top sites ("The Technology Industry," The Economist, 2001). So despite its vast potential, the actual operation of the Internet has tended to funnel users toward a limited number of Web giants, squeezing out the individual user, who has to battle marketing and entertainment professionals for his fellow user's attention. In short, although there are occasional breakthrough successes (the brief but brilliant Napster affair being one), there is no level playing field.

Even in terms of its structural development, indications are that the Internet is becoming a controlled commercial product rather than an open public infrastructure. In its early days the governance of the Internet was left largely in the hands of respected founding figures - a sort of "tribal elders" system that relied on the personal credibility of individual specialists. But this has been replaced by a combination of business interests and regulatory bureaucracy. Once the near-exclusive province of devoted volunteers, in 1995 the academic-based NSFnet handed over responsibility for management of the Web-based portion of Internet operations to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an association made up primarily of business interests that own and operate the backbone of the Net, as well as the applications that run on it. More recently the passing of one "tribal elder" - Jan Postel - occasioned the transfer of authority for regulating domain names (the ".org," ".ca," or ".com" extensions at the end of URLs) to a new body. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, has been mired in organizational battles since its birth in 1998, and its chief executive now argues that in order to avoid irrelevance it must remove Internet users from its board of directors and replace them with governmental nominees ("ICANNOT," The Economist, 2002).

And it's not just the governance of the Net that reflects a new tendency toward commercial and political control. Today, most users access the Internet through a service provider like AOL. These services help organize the chaos that is the Internet for the average user, but they also function as information gateways. Calls for the censorship of on-line pornography and terrorist information are premised on the idea that it would be these service providers who would enforce such prohibitions or be liable to prosecution.

A case in point is the recent French court ruling against the browser service Yahoo! that applied this approach and held the American company liable for failing to filter out Nazi content for French users. The court argued that since it's now possible to identify a user's location with 60 to 90% accuracy (known as geolocation), Yahoo! was obliged to observe the censorship laws of their state. Despite the origins of this particular case, it is in fact Americans who are best positioned to introduce regulatory controls on the flow of Internet information. Because of the greater carrying capacities of the U.S. networks, most Internet traffic will at some point pass through one of them. Although currently this is an automated and effectively content-blind process, it means that should systems of control evolve further - as it appears they will - the capacity to apply them will be disproportionately in American hands.

Nor is geolocation the only technology that affects access to information on the Internet. Filtering technology - which offers the capacity to block transmission of particular content - is a growing industry. China, for instance, employs a vast filtering system to ensure its users are limited to domestic sources. There are, of course, ways around this censorship, but it's only the most technologically literate who are up to employing them. So while the Internet was, for a time, a kind of electronic "wild frontier," it appears that the monopolistic powers of business and the state are reasserting control.

Recognizing the Internet's vast potential as a control technology, activist and legal expert Lawrence Lessig has raised the alarm for civil liberties under a re-engineered Internet. Lessig argues that the Internet has as much potential for control and surveillance as it has for openness and accessibility. The difference, he says, lies in the code that gets written into the base architecture of the system. Write a code that makes identity and usage patterns accessible to government and commercial interests and you lose both privacy and personal freedom. Already, estimates are that 92% of U.S. Web sites collect personal data on site visitors for commercial purposes (Castells, 2001, p.174), and governments across the world have an interest in technologies that disclose user identities and monitor on-line activities. Here is evidence that "cyberspace" as Lessig puts it, "teaches a new threat to liberty" (1999, p. 86).

Moral concerns: Implications for the space/time balance

Taking a step back from the uses and abuses of the Internet as a technology, there is one last area to address as part of an Innisian-style analysis, and this involves the moral implications of a medium's bias toward time or space - a function of its relative strengths as regards portability or durability. Perhaps in the case of the Internet it is better to say "reach" than "portability," since the Internet is not a discrete item that can be moved from place to place. In terms of reach, then, the Internet has considerable strengths, although it is not without its limits. Provided basic links are in place and there is sufficient computing power on either end, the Net can reach just about anywhere in the world there is telephony. But it should be remembered that there are still plenty of places where you can't take basic telephone service for granted. Think, for instance, of Africa - with 13% of the world's population, it has only 0.15% of the world's Internet connections ("International Internet Bandwidth," The Economist, 2001), which means its population is effectively beyond the reach of this medium as a widespread means of communications.

In contrast, the Net's greatest weakness is its lack of durability. The system itself may be robust, but the messages it carries consist of highly perishable electronic signals, so the content can be wiped out with the push of a key or by even minimal damage to the delicate materials on which digital data is stored. Even archived data is stored in technologies that face extraordinary obsolescence rates, meaning retrieval of information will become increasingly difficult with time (Bergeron, 2002). Reflecting on this problem in the mid-nineties, Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner raised a note of concern, saying: "It would be the ultimate irony if the 'information age' turned out to be one of the most poorly documented periods in human history, simply because the chronicle of our own era became irretrievable" (1994, p. 3).

Given its global reach and highly perishable content, clearly the Internet is a medium with a strong space bias. What this would have suggested to Innis was that it had centralizing tendencies. This may seem a strange conclusion for the Internet, which is premised on, and celebrated for, its decentralizing abilities, but the Internet also enables centralized authority to closely monitor and manage subordinate units wherever they are. In addition, since major cities tend to have the best telecommunications systems, this confers a further advantage on both private and business users in metropolitan areas. Already just five cities representing 1% of the world's population account for 20% of Internet domains, and the trend is increasing (Castells, 2001 p. 220).

Although it is extremely effective in controlling space, the Internet is less effective in controlling time. Not only does it lack physical durability, but it also compounds the modern problem of impermanence. Because it provides a way to constantly update information, the Internet is constantly making the information we already have obsolete, and the problem of impermanence that Innis associated with modern media reaches new heights with the Internet. To some minds the effect is liberating, but the Internet has been associated with a widespread breakdown in the capacity to transit appropriate knowledge and skills across time (Lévy, 2001, p. 254), a critical concern for Innis.

At the same time, the "instant reaction" response that the Internet makes possible may be especially dangerous if integrated into democratic decision-making, as some have espoused. Though the Net provides more access to information, this doesn't mean that the information will be reliable, relevant, or balanced. Instead, a leading American political theorist concludes that because the relationships developed in virtual communities tend to be characterized by low commitment, low diversity, and low accommodation, mixing politics and the Internet may simply serve to "intensify current tendencies toward fragmentation and polarization in U.S. civic life" (Galston, 2002, p. 54).

Finally, Innis' preference was for a medium that reflected the human scale and experience. Yet the capacity for information exchange on the Net is already beyond what humans can process. Joseph Pelton estimates that human speech communicates information at around 100 bits per second. Satellite and fibre optics, meanwhile, transmit billions of bits per second. According to his calculations, a single satellite could transmit in one minute the data equivalent of nine lifetimes of literate learning. He concludes that eventually most communications will bypass humans and take place from "machine to machine" (1990, pp. 90-92). Thus the potential is there for the monopoly of knowledge to pass out of human hands entirely, as we are dwarfed by the immensity of the information flow.

In terms of Innis' moral concerns, then, the Internet threatens to compound the worst trends in electronic communications - those of impermanence and information excess. It heightens our ability to centralize control as it undermines our capacity to transmit through the generations. And it threatens the quality of democracy as it makes human-scale communications obsolete. For these reasons, an Innisian analysis would expect this technology to further aggravate the modern space/time imbalance and would predict that the Internet will, at a minimum, mean a less liveable society, and - through the rigidities born of monopoly - may result in a civilization ill equipped to head off its own demise. This is a severe judgment to pass on what is a new and still evolving medium, but it proceeds from a wariness that too often communications systems have been allowed to develop in a manner that ran counter to our social and political interests.


The Innis method helps us ask the right questions about a new medium by focusing on particular aspects of its rise, application, and impact. The answers will become clearer with time, as we continue to watch the evolution of this medium, but already it points us toward a realistic assessment of its inherent qualities and how they may interact with the context into which it arrived. Yet it strikes me that there may be more potential to the Internet than this application of the Innis method reveals. The Internet brings with it a unique combination of qualities that make it both a highly personal and highly flexible information source. The capacity to self-construct an identity that can be revised at will is, from a certain postmodernist perspective, a step in the right direction (Poster, 2001). In contrast to traditional mass media, the Internet enables person-to-person or many-to-many communications, fosters a multi-associative information flow, and escapes the trap of linear text-based media. In short, it can in ways emulate certain features of oral communications. It remains to be seen, however, whether these features are taken advantage of in the future development of the medium or whether they will be pushed aside by the drive to realize monopoly potential.

Before I close, I want to add one final reflection on the moral dimension to Innis' work, since it still presents us with something of a puzzle. With it, Innis equips us to assess the implications of a new medium for the space/time balance, and therefore for freedom and humanism, but the goal of this moral assessment remains ambiguous. In making us alert to the stakes involved, what response did Innis mean to promote - irony, action, resignation, or nostalgia? Should we attempt to curb the use of certain media? Or is it merely the scientist's task to reflect on the rise and fall of civilizations, even his own?

For my part, I tend to plumb for a combination of irony and action as the appropriate response, and even irony - so characteristic of Innis' work - is itself a kind of critical activism. Through his communications work, Innis left us a method of analyzing and assessing new media that reveals the increasingly critical situation we face in Western society. In doing so he does not give us false hope that we can escape our circumstances, but neither was he willing to pull a comforting veil over what we are doing to ourselves.

But technology is not destiny, and even Innis - often branded as a technological determinist - would hold that how things turn out is a function of how we approach the challenges involved. An application of Innis' method to the Internet gives us reason to be concerned for the impact of the medium, but it should also caution us not to squander opportunities to improve our communications environment, or to right the time/space imbalance, when they are presented to us.


The author wishes to thank the two anonymous reviewers for this journal for their thoughtful comments and guidance, and acknowledges the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in making this research possible.


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