Reflections on my PhD work — Part One Harold Innis

I have been studying Twitter for the past four years, following major controversies including Idle No More, Gamergate, Trump’s election campaign, Black Lives Matter and so on. Not all are mentioned in my dissertation, but I’ve been following them nonetheless. I want to know what online people think is important and how this connects (or does not connect) to what the state thinks. Can we speak about online and offline people as if they are two different things? If so, what are the differences?

Other scholars have thought about this question as well, usually under the umbrella term “agenda setting,” although philosophers like Jurgen Habermas and political economists like Harold Innis have considered it from the perspective of political discourse and empire respectively. Innis is probably the best start, because he is Canadian and my dissertation is about agenda setting in Canada.

Harold Innis

As a country wedged culturally and politically between Europe and the United States, Canada is a country that has historically been “cultured upon” more than it has influenced the global culture. Innis argues that this reality is first the result of Canada’s economy being historically relegated to staple goods (furs, fisheries, lumber etc.) for larger powers in France, the UK and the United States. More recently, the oil and gas  and other mining industries have been the major influences on Canada’s economy. In the digital age, one might also see Canada’s service sector as an extension of the staple thesis.

Innis’s second consideration about Canada’s “cultured upon” status is his theory of communication bias too often mistakenly seen as merely a precursor to Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about “hot” and “cold” media. The difference between McLuhan and Innis is that McLuhan is much more interested in the role of media in creating a global society. Innis is much more pragmatic — he argues that an empire must be able to communicate over time and space to survive.  That is, an empire must have sufficient political influence over geographic space (very important for Canada, a country with plenty of geography) and  a set of common or at least compatible identities that “stick” for a long period of time. Different media are biased towards one or the other of these necessary empire-sustaining ingredients. For example, a book is much more durable than a newspaper and thus has a time bias. People are much more likely to have read Pride and Prejudice than a newspaper from the early 19th century. This means that Pride and Prejudice has achieved its goal of extending the culture and values of the Anglo-Saxon empire to Canadians 200 years later. For example, the value of marrying for love rather than convenience (a major theme in the book) has much more resonance for modern Canadian society than does the use of marriage for power relations more common in Renaissance Italy.

On the other hand, why is it that of the 30 highest grossing films in Japan, only 9 were originally written in Japanese? Examining 19th Century Canada, Innis noticed the role of pulp paper and the invention of the rotary press making it much easier for the United State to convince Canadians to buy American products. The power of radio, television and now digital media to promote and distribute goods across long-distances shows the power of space-biased media. Twitter and Facebook exemplify space-biased media, but with one caveat: Innis has also argued that oral communication has an important role in time-bias, exemplified by the major influence of Socratic philosophy and Judeo-Christian religions. Is it possible that social media sustains both time and space bias and defies Innis’s theory?

Time and Space?

What I discovered is that issues may have continuity online when social groups do not. What this means is that ideas can go viral on the one hand, but the deepness of the idea does not necessarily carry across time periods. When I look at social network graphs, it is as if I am seeing a large group of people yelling comments at their television, except the comments remain even though minds have changed. Innis’s work definitely applies generally to social media, but there seems to be something incomplete about the analysis. What does it mean when ideas that have sudden but fleeting relevance to society are etched in digital stone for people to view 10, 20 or 30 years later? How will historians view this information? How will we use (or not use) these ideas to identify what matters to our nations? How will this kind of data influence the way we allocate resources for better or worse?

In the next installment, I will spend more time looking at what “agenda setting” is and what it means to media, society, and the state.


2 thoughts on “Reflections on my PhD work — Part One Harold Innis

  1. […] In social network theory, there is a distinction between “strong” and “weak” ties.  Strong ties are those that are long lasting and we measure them by something called “triad closure” which basically means that the friends of your friends are also your friends. “Weak” ties are more fleeting but they are important for the spreading of information (or conversely, contagious diseases) across long distances. If you have been following this series, you may notice the connection to Harold Innis. […]


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