Innis, Harold A., Empire and communications \ i~,~}. k \1.\i.. ‘i+h l”!r·,)~\_l.t rVl. I\ P;’3·\:: ,f~.rl PAPER AND THE PRINTING PRESS ;Ji! ‘Jt~j. Harold Innis: Prophet of Empire & Communications. 03Jan Photograph of Harold Innis standing among lilacs, no date Harold Innis, no date. Source. Empire and Communications examines the impact of media such as stone, clay, papyrus and the alphabet on the empires of Egypt and.

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I n this preface I must express my thanks to Sir Reginald Coupland for his kindness in extending to me an invitation to deliver the Beit lectures on Imperial economic history. I am grateful to him for his consistent encouragement. To his name I must cmomunications those of Professor W. I have been greatly encouraged also by Professor and Mrs. Knight of the University of Chicago. An interest in the general problem was stimulated by the late Professor C. Cochrane and communiications late Professor E.

Professor Grant Robertson, Professor W. Innis have read the manuscript in whole or in part. I am under heavy obligations to Mr. Wallace and his staff in the library of the University of Toronto and to my colleagues in the department of political economy.

No one can be oblivious to the work of Kroeber, Mead, Marx, Mosca, Pareto, Sorokin, Spengler, Toynbee, Veblen, and empir in suggesting barold significance of communication to modern civilization. I have attempted to work out its implications in a more specific fashion and to suggest the background of their volumes.

The twentieth century has been conspicuous for extended publications on civilization which in themselves reflect a type of civilization. It is suggested that empirr written works, including this one, have dangerous implications to the vitality of an oral tradition and to the health of a harokd, particularly if they thwart the interest of a people in culture and, following Aristotle, the cathartic effects of culture.

T he twentieth communidations has been notable in the concern with studies of civilizations. Spengler, Toynbee, Kroeber, Sorokin, and others have produced works, designed to throw light on the causes of the rise and decline of civilizations, which have reflected an intense interest in the possible future of our own civilization. In the title of these lectures on xnd economic history it is clear that in our civilization we are concerned not only with civilizations but also with empires and that we have been seized with the role of economic considerations in the success or failure of empires.

Recognition of the importance of economic considerations is perhaps characteristic of the British Empire and it will be part of our task to appraise their significance to the success or failure of the British Empire and in turn to the success or failure of Western civilization.

We may concede with Mark Pattison that.

Empire and Communications

In one department of progress the English development has inis been complete, regular, and from within. In commerce and manufactures Emmpire may be said hagold have conducted, on behalf of the world, but at her own risks and perils, the one great commercial experiment that has yet been made. Our practice has been so extended and diversified, that from it alone, with but little reference to that of the other trading nations of antiquity, or of modern times, the laws of economics have been inferred, and a new science constructed on a solid and indisputable basis We are immediately faced with the very great, perhaps insuperable, obstacle of attempting in this University, located [2] so near a centre which has been the heart of an economic empire, to appraise economic considerations by the use of tools which are in themselves products of economic considerations.

A citizen of one of the British Commonwealth of Nations which has been profoundly influenced by the economic development of empires, who has been obsessed over a anv period with an hrold in the character of that influence, can hardly claim powers of objectivity adequate to the task in hand.

It is an advantage, however, to emphasize these dangers at the beginning so that we can at least be alert to the implications of the type of bias. Obsession with economic considerations illustrates the dangers of monopolies of knowledge and suggests the necessity of appraising its limitations. Civilizations can survive only through a concern with their limitations and in turn through a concern with the limitations of their institutions including empires.

And we shall try to escape his strictures on English political economists whom he felt were in danger of becoming enemies of reform. Scarcely any one of them seems to have proposed to himself as a subject of inquiry, communicatkons changes the relations of those classes to one another are likely to undergo in the progress of society; to what extent the distinction itself admits of being beneficially modified, and if it does not even, in a certain sense, tend gradually to disappear.

I shall perhaps find sympathy in these warnings in this University though it is perhaps easier for one trained in the universities ane North America to be alert to them, but this is scarcely the time to appear boastful. In paying heed to these warnings I do not intend to concentrate on microscopic studies of small periods or regions in the history of the British Empire, important as these are to its understanding. Nor shall I confine unnis interest to the British Empire as a unique phenomenon, since it is to an important extent a collection of odds and ends of other empires represented by the French in Quebec and the Dutch in South Africa.


I shall attempt rather to focus attention on other empires in the history of the West, with reference to empires of the East, in order to isolate factors which seem important for purposes of comparison. Immediately one is wnd by the vastness of the subject and immediately it becomes evident that we must select factors which will appear significant to the problem. It has epmire to me that the subject of communication offers possibilities in that it occupies a crucial position in the organization and administration of government and in turn of empires and of Western civilization.

But I must confess ans this point a bias which has led me to give particular attention to this subject. In studies of Canadian economic history or of the economic history of the French, British, and American empires, I have been influenced by a phenomenon dmpire strikingly evident in Canada which for that reason I have perhaps over-emphasized.

Briefly, North America is deeply penetrated by three vast inlets from the Hsrold Mississippi, the St. Lawrence, and Hudson Bay, and the rivers of its drainage basin.

In the northern part e,pire the continent or in Canada extensive waterways and the dominant Precambrian formation have facilitated concentration on bulk products the character of which has been determined by the culture of the aborigines and by the effectiveness of navigation by lake, river, and ocean to Europe. Along the north Atlantic coast the cod fisheries were exploited over an extensive coast-line; decentralization was inevitable; and political interests of Europe were widely represented.

The highly valuable small-bulk furs were exploited along the St. Lawrence by the French and in Hudson Bay by the English. Continental development implied centralization. Competition between the two inlets gave the advantage in the fur trade to Hudson Bay, and after the St. Lawrence region shifted to dependence on the square timber trade.

Empire and Communications – Wikipedia

Monopoly of the com,unications trade held by the Hudson’s Bay Company checked expansion north-westward from the St. Lawrence until Confederation was achieved and political organization became sufficiently strong to support construction of a transcontinental railway, the Canadian Pacific, completed in On the Pacific coast the discovery of placer gold was followed by rapid increase in settlement, communicstions of the mines, and empife development of new staples adapted to the demands cojmunications Pacific Ocean navigation such as timber.

The railway and the steamship facilitated concentration on agricultural products, notably wheat in western Canada and, later on, products of the Precambrian formation such as precious and base metals and pulp and paper. Concentration on ahrold production of staples for export to more highly industrialized areas in Europe and later in the United States had broad [5] implications for the Canadian economic, political, and social structure. Each staple in its turn left its stamp, and the shift to new staples invariably produced periods of crises in which adjustments in the old structure anv painfully made and a new pattern created in relation to a new staple.

An attempt empife been made to trace the early developments elsewhere but little has been done to indicate clearly the effects epmire the development of the pulp and paper industry. The difficulty of studying this industry arises partly from its late development and partly from the complexity of the problem of analysing the demand for the finished product.

Concentration on staple products incidental to the geographic background has commmunications problems not only in the supply area but also in the demand area, to mention only the effects of specie from Central America on European prices, the effects of the fur trade on France, of wheat production on English agriculture, and of pulp and paper production on public opinion in Anglo-Saxon countries. The effects of the organization and production on a large scale of staple raw materials were shown in the attempts by France to check the increase in production of furs, in the resistance of English purchasers to the high price of timber cojmunications in the abolition of the Navigation Acts, in the opposition of European agriculture to low-cost wheat, and in the attempt to restrain the sensationalism of the new journalism which followed cheap newsprint.

In this reference to the problem of attack it will be clear that we have been concerned with the use of certain tools which have proved effective in the interpretation of the [6] economic history of Canada and the British Empire.

It may seem irreverent to use these tools harpld a study of public opinion and to suggest that the changing character of the British Empire during the present century has been in part a result of the pulp and paper industry and its influence on public opinion, but I have felt it wise to proceed with instruments with which I am familiar and which have proved useful. The viewpoint is suggested in qnd comment of Constable to Murray: I shall attempt to outline the significance of communication in a small number of empires as a means of understanding its role in a general sense and as a background to an appreciation of its significance to the British Empire.

Bryce has stated that. When the Roman dominion began to break up the process was reversed and for seven hundred years xommunications more the centrifugal forces had it their own way From the thirteenth century onwards the tide begins to set the other way In the organization of large areas communication occupies a vital place, and it is significant that Bryce’s periods correspond roughly first to that dominated by clay and papyrus, second to that dominated by parchment, and third to that dominated by paper.


The effective government of large areas depends to a very important extent on the efficiency of communication. The concepts of time and space reflect the significance of media to civilization. Media which emphasize time are those which are durable in character such as parchment, clay, and stone. The heavy materials are suited to the development of architecture and sculpture. Media which emphasize space are apt to be less durable and light in character such as papyrus and paper.

The latter are suited to wide areas onnis administration and trade. The conquest of Egypt by Rome gave access to supplies of papyrus which became the basis of a large administrative empire. Materials which emphasize time favour decentralization and hierarchical types of institutions, while those which emphasize space favour centralization and systems of government less hierarchical in character.

Large-scale political organizations such as empires must be considered from the standpoint snd two dimensions, those of space and time, and persist by overcoming the bias of media which over-emphasize either dimension. They have tended to flourish under conditions in which civilization reflects the influence of more than one medium and in which the bias of one medium toward decentralization is offset by the bias of another medium towards centralization.

We can conveniently divide the history of the West into the writing and the printing periods. In the writing period [8] we can note the harpld of various media such as the clay tablet of Mesopotamia, the papyrus roll in the Communicarions and in the Graeco-Roman world, parchment codex in the late Graeco-Roman world and the early Middle Ages, and paper after its introduction in the western world from China.

In the printing period we are able to concentrate on paper as a medium, but we can note the introduction of machinery in the manufacture of paper and in printing at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the introduction of the use of wood as a raw material in the second half of that century. We are apt to overlook the significance of the spoken word and to forget that it has left little tangible remains.

We can sense its importance [7] even in contemporary civilization and we can see its influence in the great literature of the heroic age [8] of the Teutonic peoples and of Greece and in the effects [9] of its discovery in the sagas of Europe in the late eighteenth century on the literature of the north. Prior to the introduction of writing music played its role in emphasizing rhythm and metre which eased the task of memory. Poetry is significant as a tribute to the oral tradition. The written tradition has had a limited empird on them.

It is scarcely possible for generations disciplined in the written and the printed tradition to appreciate the oral tradition. Students of linguistics have empie that the spoken word was in its origins a half-way house between singing and speech, an outlet for intense feelings rather than intelligible expression. In the words of Cassirer [11] language transformed the indeterminate into the determinate idea and held it within the sphere of finite determinations. The spoken word set its seal on and gave definite form to what the mind created and culled away from the total sphere of consciousness.

But the speech of the individual continued in a co,munications struggle with language and brought about constant adjustment. The significance of a basic medium to its civilization is difficult to appraise since comnunications means of appraisal are influenced by the media, and indeed the fact of appraisal [15] appears to be peculiar to certain types of media. A change in the type of medium implies a change in the type of appraisal and hence makes it difficult for one civilization to understand another.

The difficulty is enhanced by the character of the material, particularly its relative permanence. Pirenne has commented on the irony of history in which as a result of the character of the material much is preserved when little is written and little is preserved when much is written. Papyrus has practically disappeared whereas clay and stone have remained largely intact, but clay and stone as permanent material are used for limited purposes and studies of the periods in which they predominate will be influenced by that fact.

The difficulties of appraisal will be evident, particularly in the consideration of time. With the dominance of arithmetic and the decimal system, dependent apparently on the number of fingers or toes, modern students have accepted the linear measure of time.

The dangers of applying this procrustean device in the appraisal of civilizations in which it did not exist illustrate one of numerous problems.

The difficulties will be illustrated in part in these six lectures in which time becomes a crucial factor in the organization of material and in which a lecture is a standardized and relatively inefficient method of communication with an emphasis on dogmatic answers rather than eternal questions.

I have attempted empore meet these problems by using the [11] concept of empire as an indication of the efficiency of communication. It will reflect to an important extent the efficiency of particular media of communication and its possibilities in creating conditions favourable to creative thought.