Contemplating the Communication State

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Marshall McLuhan's reflections on the social influence of electronic media have been with us long enough that it is possible to forget their intellectual sources. McLuhan, a devoted reader of Harold Innis, developed further Innis's ideas of the social uses of space and time and then gave them popular currency. His project was made possible in part because of a shift in the nature of academic work since Innis had taken up a canoe paddle to gather primary evidence about the Canadian fur trade. McLuhan believed that electronic access to information was as much for the use of scholars as for anyone else. The metaphors for which he became famous were laid over broad surveys of data, ideas and traditions that Innis simply did not have the time or resources to assemble. If Innis spent a lifetime kindling, stoking and tending the flames of a few influential ideas, McLuhan sent them up hourly like flares.

There is nothing covert about these intellectual connections. In his introduction to Innis's Empire and Communication, McLuhan indirectly acknowledged that the senior theorist had been the first to describe the relations between media and social structure: "[Harold Innis] never ceases to point to the action of visual or literate culture in commanding space, while stressing the fact that command over territorial space usually goes with neglect of time, tradition, and stability."1

It was Innis, not McLuhan, who described in empirical detail the historical associations among states whose media were "biased" towards either time or space. States concerned with media biased towards time (such as parchment, clay or stone) were more likely to be characterised by a decentralised system of government, with relatively hierarchical social institutions. States that used media biased towards space (papyrus and paper, for example) were characteristically more centralised in their governing structures, preferring less hierarchical social institutions. The practical combination and use of the relative biases of media helped account for the social origins of empires.

After Innis, Canadianists and communications scholars were set on a track of mutual interests. The state's concern to "bind space" through the construction of a railway had been followed by ambiguous social outcomes. The transportation system that had been justified in the language of establishing national sovereignty was used, paradoxically, to transport American goods westward. In a development that Innis seemed to anticipate, the decision to create a national broadcasting system, along with other cultural policies, held a similarly contradictory prospect. Of all the developed nations, Canada has been the most eager to reserve a role for government in developing a national culture, yet few nations remain as politically and economically dependent on another nation for their cultural symbols. After Innis, Canadian culture (media "content," if you like) could never again be seriously considered without a recognition of the influence of American media "channels" on that culture. …