The Bias of Communication

Harold A. Innis

On the front cover of this new edition of Bias, the subheading reads: "The classic Canadian work on communication by the man who inspired Marshall McLuhan...." Perhaps with an eye to overseas sales or perhaps even for sales within Canada, Innis's name appears still to require "McLuhan" as a kind of badge of notoriety. "Inspiration" is an exceedingly ambiguous word, and used within academic relations, downright mischievous. It is commonly a coded form of a demand for recognition previously denied. The actual relationship between Innis and McLuhan is not well documented. Within the realm of the history of certain ideas in communications, the relationship is a source of controversy. How much does McLuhan owe to Innis? To the extent that McLuhan's project is so vastly different to that of Innis, did McLuhan seriously misunderstand Innis's ideas? Or deliberately misunderstand his ideas? What of common sources of "inspiration," for example, the work of Siegfried Giedion? Tackling this corner of Canadian intellectual property is no small feat, and ironically perhaps, leads into the history of communications scholarship as problems of knowledge production, monopoly, and bias--some of the analytical tools suggested by Innis himself.

My first reading of Innis came on the heels of a McLuhan-led establishment of the Joycean school of Communications/English studies at McGill University. Innis's text, Empire and Communications, seemed entirely out of place in the world of McLuhanisms: a Machian universe of empirically-grounded, historical detail against the poetic whimsy of media massages. It occurred to me that I hadn't actually been reading McLuhan's work: it was closer to more passive forms of idea consumption--perhaps like having a conversation or watching television. Innis's work, by contrast, forced a slowing down of the entire process of reading whereby I seemed to be reading his book sentence-by-sentence if not word-by-word, but painstakingly so. The idea of communications as determinant may have been shared by both Innis and McLuhan, but their respective projects, both in style and purpose, seem to me diametrically opposed.

In the period since that time, no communication scholar I have recently met who reads Innis for the first time can remain deeply unaffected by his work. They express astonishment at both the low profile and profundity of Innis's scholarship. As the introduction to this new edition of Bias is keen to emphasize, considerable attention has been drawn to Innis's contribution by eminent scholars in the fields of anthropology, social history, economics, and communications. Debates about Innis's work have taken place recently outside Canada and have assumed an importance within the current concerns regarding globalization and economic rationalization as issues in communications research. An important cultural and communications journal in Australia is devoting an entire issue to Innis's work, making it relevant and controversial.

Sandwiched between two other publications--Empire and Communications (1950) and Changing Concepts of Time (1952)--The Bias of Communication (1951) provides the programmatic statements regarding the links between history and media. Heyer & Crowley succinctly summarize Innis's central concern with bias in their introduction to this new edition, which follows their textbook publication, Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society. With the reference in their introduction to Innis's unpublished project manuscript, "A History of Communications," there is a strong claim for a kind of inheritance of the Innis legacy and the furthering of the complex "History of Communications" project.

Though this perspective has been on the recent research agenda at least since the mid-1970s, its claims are only now entering the academic mainstream. This perspective can now be made more compelling within the discipline with the proliferation of Innis's work through the recent reprinting of both Bias and Empire and Communications. In a discipline which has never ceased to be marked by the competition for paradigmatic supremacy, Innis and the history of communications perspective will have important consequences for the intellectual future of communications scholarship.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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