Charles Lapointe

Tomas Fisher

Introduction to Mass Media 530-HSF-03

14 October 2014

This essay will discuss the works of two great Canadian media theorists, Harnold Adam Innis and Helbert Marshal McLuhan. Both of these theorists analyzed types of communications and media in cultures.

What today seems obvious was once an innovative thought of Innis and McLuhan’s for their time. Their work is still studied today because they accurately predicted the future by analyzing past forms of media and communication.

Innis is a Canadian political economist that directly influenced Marshal McLuhan. He has written several books including his most known book, “Empire and Communications”. Innis’s main thesis goes as follows; “each medium embodies a bias in terms of the organisation and control of the information. Any empire or society is generally concerned with duration over time and extension in space.*”

Harold Innis and I believe that a culture is capable of invading another culture without any military power. We have seen invasions in the past, such as the English empire invading the habitants of La Nouvelle-France and imposing their culture in 1759 with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Most of those conquests were made using military power. A great example of non-military cultural invasion is the way certain corporations and other cultural aspects that derive from the United States’ culture, such as McDonald, can invade other cultures and can become integrated as part of the culture in other countries. The famous McDonald fast food chain is a symbol of the American culture, yet it is found in 119 countries and serves 64 million people every day*. The people with different cultures that live outside the U.S did not necessarily approve the idea of having a McDonald built near them, but progressively, after being installed, people accept fast food chains and fast food, a term that was popularized in the U.S in the 1950s*, as part of their regular diet. Canada is, according to Innis, another great example of a non-military culturally invaded country. Because the Canadian economy tended to rely on the production of simple commodities such as fur, lumber and mining, Canada was and still is vulnerable and dependent on previously major manufacturing nations like the U.S. This is easily observable. We are still, if not more, influenced by the United States than before*. The American way of seeing the world defines the way we, Canadians, also see it. This cultural invasion comes from many sources but a vivid example is the Medias such as music, TV shows and movies. Most of what we watch and listen to is not Canadian, but American.

Innis’ Monopolies of knowledge idea requires him to extend the economic concept of monopoly in order to include culture and politics. He believed that people or groups who have access to the knowledge often held by a small amount of people hold great power, and that “those who monopolize knowledge are also in a position to define what is legitimate knowledge*.” I believe the most interesting part of this idea is the way those monopolies of knowledge derive their power. It either comes from different sources such as Mastery of Complexity, Control of Raw Materials for Media, Performativity, Speed and Ability to Afford High Costs. If you hold any of these monopolies, then you, in a way, hold power to shape the world around you. Innis once said; “Monopolies of knowledge tend to polarize societies into a mass of the ignorant and a knowledge elite.” Foucault also argues something that is interesting; “one cannot own power; power is a process which must continually be reasserted for its continuance”. That means that if you are not part of the monopoly of knowledge then you give power to the ones who do have that knowledge.

What Innis is talking about when he’s describing time and space bias in the Medias is a quite simple and interesting concept that he has conceived himself in his book Empire and Communications. He explains that all the Medias used in empire holds a bias, whether is time or space. Let’s start by discussing what he understands as time bias. A media is time biased when it has the ability to survive long periods of time. In order to understand why a time biased media is useful we have to comprehend that every empire have for goal to expand over space and time. In other words, empires want to last for the longest amount of time and expand in term of territory. Time biased media like clay tablets are an effective way for an empire to subsist over time, therefore keep the empire alive for the longest amount of time. On the other hand, Medias that are space biased have a shorter lifespan than time biased Medias but have the quality to be able to be transported more easily over a larger territory. Papyrus was invented in order for the Egyptians to expand, not to last. Innis argued that in order for an empire to be successful, to last and to expand, both types of Medias had to be used effectively.

Helbert Marshal McLuhan was directly influenced by Innis’s, in fact, they were both professors at the University of Toronto. They both studied media, but in different ways. McLuhan’s most famous theory is “The Medium is the message”. Three theories of his will be discussed in this essay including this last theory.

What McLuhan meant when he stated the medium is the message was that it is not relevant what is being said, but how it is being transmitted. McLuhan wrote his book when television was still relatively not big and computers well into the future. He understood that both the media and the medium are independent from each other. The media is the content. The medium in itself creates an environment that is a powerful tool used to transmit messages that would otherwise be impossible to transmit. The effect of the medium is not observable first hand but with the development of technology over time it becomes more obvious. McLuhan explained how as a society, we are directly affected by the medium. McLuhan went further to say that the medium is “the extensions of Man” and what he meant by this is that the medium allows individuals the power to create something that will extend beyond what is at their disposal.

The first theory discussed is hot and cold Media. It is not easy to grasp, but understanding McLuhan’s way of, himself, understanding what the medium and the media is it is easier to grasp. He separates all media into two categories, either hot or cold. Hot media is the media in which an abundance of visual data is given. It leaves barely any room for interpretation. It’s seen as “high-definition”. On the other hand, there’s cold media. Cold media is the opposite of hot media. It’s considered “low-definition” and requires a higher degree of participation. The types of Medias that can be considered cold are the television & cartoons, and what could be considered hot media could be films, radio, lecture and photography.

The second theory is the medium is the message. This one is another slippery theory. McLuhan uses a light bulb in order to explain this one.

The last theory is the global village theory. It is probably his simplest and most forward theory. The global village is a metaphor that links the past with the future and right now. Before there were any types of Medias available other than oral tradition ideas were spread easily in small villages. People had to rely on oral tradition and being next to the person they are talking to in order to transmit information. The same thing is happening right now on a bigger scale. You can now transmit information to a person who is on the other side of the world very easily, but this time using another type of communications. It’s like if our whole village was the planet, and information was shared quickly. My personal problem with this is that instead of bringing people closer, it separates us. It puts a screen in front of us. It reduces the amount of real social interaction between us. I don’t need to prove this to you. Just look at all those people who are looking down to their cell phones in the hallways.



Collection Canada. McLuhan: Hot and Cold. Web (October 14, 2014)

Dr. Burgess. New Media & Digital Literacies Notes: Marshall McLuhan. Web (October 14, 2014)

 Harold Adams Innis: The Bias of Communications & Monopolies of power Web (October 14, 2014)

McDonald. McDonald’s Worldwide. Web (October 14, 2014)

Mullen, Megan. Space Bias/Time Bias: Harold Innis, Empire and Communications  Web (October 14, 2014)

Wikipedia. Fast Food. Web (October 14, 2014)