ARTS2090- Research Assignment- “A Changing Monopoly”

In The Press: A neglected factor in the economic history of the twentieth century, Harold Innis states:

[C]ivilization has been dominated at different stages by various of communication such as clay, papyrus, parchment, and paper produced first rags and then from wood. Each medium has its significance for the type of monopoly of knowledge which will be built and which will destroy the conditions suited to creative thought and be displaced by a new medium with its peculiar type of monopoly of knowledge[1]

The above quote appears at first glance quite unproblematic and easily agreeable. Innis implies a linear progression of dominant mediums of communication over time that has resulted in power which are centred on types of knowledge. Through this passage it is therefore evident that Innes cast mediums of communications as central agents in the transformation of civilisations. As I will show this is conception can certainly be seen as unproblematic in tracing the history of mediums from writing to print media. As Innis’ theory only explored up until the advent mass print and broadcast mediums, I am interested in whether this conception of the “monopoly of knowledge” can still be applied and agreed with in an increasingly convergent and digitalised mediascape, whereby the complex assemblages of mediums afforded by the internet has seen the undermining of the power of print institutions and the interactivity of audiences. In order to answer this question, I will explore Innis theory of communication in further detail through his essay Empire and Commutations in correlation to historical and contemporary examples of mediums and their effects on society. Before I begin, I would like to mention that in this particular text by Innis, there is a focus on written culture over oral culture, presumably I would say this because historically this is where the most amount of change occurred until the introduction of broadcast media. For this reason I will trace written culture until, I address the complex assemblage of written and oral culture presented by the internet.

The most apparent way of understanding this statement by Innes is to deconstruct it via a close engagement with his text Empire and Communications. In order to do this in a concise manner for a short article, I acknowledge that this will perhaps oversimplify a work that was clearly part of a complicated unit of sociological essays. In any case, I have interpreted this particular work as follows: Innis theory is based on argument that the success and decline of civilisations is due to the bias in the use of particular mediums of media communication. For Innis, mediums of communication were not merely technological apparatus but is a central determinate to societies organisation as a whole. In order to argue this Innis explored media technologies over history through various empires from Egypt and Mesopotamia to China; dividing them into time and space based media’s. He argued, different materials have distinct properties that support different modes of communication which either have bias towards space or time [2]. In sum, time-binding media are mediums such as stone monuments and clay tablets and parchment. He argued they have great authority as they last over long amounts of time but are limited to localised areas. Space-binding included medium such as papyrus and paper do not have as much authority but can spread over large areas and tend to favour centralised administration [3]. Ultimately Innes argued that the concentration on a medium of communication implies a bias in the cultural development of the civilisation concerned either on an emphasis of time-binding mediums or on space- binding mediums[4].  Therefore, through this reading the above statement can be deconstructed as arguing the emergence of dominant new mediums displace others. This concept can be illustrated through using one of Innis’ examples, Egypt. In the ancient Egyptian empire, Innis argued pictorial hieroglyphics inscribed on the stone of pyramids, related to the authority of the monarch and the divine. He states: “the shift from absolute monarchy to more democratised organisation coincided with a shift in emphasis on stone as a medium of communication or as a basis of prestige as shown in pyramids, to an emphasis on papyrus” [5]. So, it can be seen that, stone, was a time based medium and papyrus a space based medium.

It is through this dominance of one medium of communication over another that Innis argued “monopolies of knowledge” are created; as whenever new media arises so to do monopolies of knowledge concerning them [6]. As Catherine Frost illustrates, this is both a monopoly of content and socioeconomic control as although commutative possibilities are broadened by a new medium, they also focus on a particular content and power plays of certain actors [7]. For example, the spread of papyrus lead to a move away from the content of hieroglyphics to the written word. Socioeconomically, the emergence of papyrus as a medium lead to rapid increase in the development of writing and the monopoly of knowledge by specialised scribes, priest, rulers and nobles. Similarly Paul Levinson takes up the example of written culture. He argues, through the domination of this space-binding medium, there were shifts in the practices of writing, from pictographs to phonetic writing. This lead internalising of thought, thus creating a monopoly of knowledge as this skill was only held by a select group of people who could read and write [8]. It was therefore the literate who determined the type of knowledge that was distributed to the rest of society.

Writing on Papyrus: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus

In line with Innis’ statement, it can be argued that the emergence of print mediums displaced the dominant culture of written mediums such as scrolls– which were time based mediums– in favour for space-binding mediums as the dominant form of communication. The invention of the Gutenberg printing press 1455 (which was adapted from the Chinese movable type block printing) saw dramatic developments in to communication mediums which lead to newspapers, magazines and books [9]. As Elizabeth Eisenstein argues, the printing press lead to a dramatic reorganisation of society which ultimately resulted in: the challenging of the authority of religion wide spreading of the printing of the bible multiple languages, the rise of the nation state, colonialism, trade, capital, literature and scientific and medical revolutions [10]. It can be seen as the mediums of communication became more dispersed over space the public sphere became broader and decentralised as content was created  and consumed by larger numbers Similarly, Levinson states; “literacy probably constitutes the most significant monopoly of knowledge in human history” [11]. In agreement with Innis, it can be seen, through these spread of space-binding mediums came, “monopolies of knowledge” depending on the medium and content that was provided. For example in Innis’ text The Press: A neglected factor in the economic history of the twentieth century, he illustrates the content and socioeconomic monopolies of knowledge brought by newspaper publications. He states content wise there was a “shattering of language, invention and new idioms, and the sharpening of words “and socioeconomically argues this monopoly of knowledge was met by adverting industry controlled aggregation and distribution [12]. Through this example it can be seen along with the expansion of the public realm through print media was creation of publishing houses and media corporations. Through these mediums content is the focus not the platforms; thus in following Innis’ claim it can be seen this shifting of culture saw internationalisation of distribution of mediums over space; but in turn the distribution and the aggregation of the content in these mass produced printed mediums being centrally controlled by industry and governments.

Newspaper Cover: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Metro_cover.jpg

So, this leaves us at the point in media communications history where Innis’ theory ends. As I have illustrated, one can certainly apply and agree with Innis through written and printed mediums, but can we apply this statement to a ever increasing multiplicity of convergent and internet platforms? In my view yes; but perhaps not in the same simple linear progression as Innis’ statement implies as many of these mediums are simultaneous existence. Through the growing domination of internet and convergent digital mediums, I would argue there have been noticeable cultural shifts in communication practices, just as Innis argues. This shift has been noted by Penn Olson’s, whose study shows a growing shift in social engagement and communication via social networking platforms [13].  The internet is beginning to break down the linear communication experience of writing and printing. The complexity of the media flows through the platform of the internet is blurring the lines between oral and written and time and space bias that Innis wrote about. The only problem I see for Innis’ argument is that I believe this medium falls between time and space- binding biases as whilst the content is certainly space-binding the computer, or convergent medium itself could be considered more time based.

This aside, these networked mediums, are changing the monopolies of knowledge of contemporary society. Not only do networked mediums reach further around the world than ever before, but the interactivity provided by the internet and mediums with internet capabilities allows for greater user generated aggregation and distribution of information and interactivity than any medium before. It is in this environment that the once passive reader becomes a commenter, producer, aggregator and distributor of their own information. This gives individual’s power to interact through networked platforms, to rate, access and to create is because of the mediums which allow for this activity. Ultimately one can argue that this has lead to a shift away from and increasing collapse in the domination of middle institutions and therefore a bypassing of the former traditional monopolies of knowledge of print and broadcast media [14]. Of course if we are to agree with Innis there is still a “monopoly of knowledge” in every dominant medium. Huber Guillaud argues, this is the power “of being able to command attention, influence others attention and otherwise traffic information” [15]. But as he notes, this monopoly of attention is not directly given power to creators but to “a very few privilege population” [16].

In a more direct way one can apply Innis’ theory to Ipads in particular. It has certainly been noted by commentators such as Judy Sim that perhaps we are experiencing a shift in domination from print mediums to convergent digital mediums like the Ipad. What ereaders do provide to displace print media is the customisation and multiplicity of publications, which changes the nature of the material. Although, I agree with commentators such as Peter Kirn, that this medium is almost caught in familiar institutionalised monopoly of knowledge that is virtually the same a print media as although it allows users to personalise content and to perform a multiplicity of task on the one medium, the content is still ultimately centrally aggregated and distributed by Apple. Another monopoly created by the Ipad has also been noted by Bhaskar in his study on the limited potential for the adoption of ereaders in Africa. He argues due to the distribution internet access being largely used towards the popularity of mobile phone, and the internet’s lack of priority due to health and socio-economic issues that South Africa faces [17].It is clear from this example that networked mediums still produced Innis’ “monopolies of knowledge” within society.

The Ipad: flickr.com

In conclusion, it can be seen that Innis’ statement can be applied to and agreed with in contemporary communication mediums in terms of the shifting from print and broadcast media to internet mediums. This can be seen through instantaneous exchange of dialogue through social networking platforms, the ability to aggregate one’s own content and distribute it through platforms such as Youtube and open publishing capabilities. As Danah Boyd states: “Power is no longer in the hands of those who control the channels of distribution, but in the hands of those who control the limited resources of attention” [18] and it is for this reason that one can agree with the statement of “monopolies of knowledge” being created through dominant mediums in society. Of course, the more convergent platforms become the more tangled everything is with each other, therefore the more flexible and variable things become but, in any case one can still agree with Innis as like the statement implies this is a ongoing process of adaptation and change. But perhaps Innis himself sums this up best when he stated: “[I]t is difficult to overestimate the significance of technological change in communication or the position of monopolies built up by those systematically take advantage of it” [19].

[1] Innis, Harold ([1948]2004)“The Press: A neglected factor in the economic history of the twentieth century”, Changing concepts of time, James W Carey eds, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: Oxford, p 85

[2] Innis, Harold (1950) Empire and Communications, Toronto, university of Toronto Press, p. 27

[3] Innis, (Empire) p. 28

[4] Innis, (Empire), p. 27

[5] Innis, (Empire) p 44-45

[6] Innis, (Empire) p 44-45

[7] Frost, Catherine, (2003) “How Prometheus Is Bound: Applying the Innis Method of Communications Analysis to the Internet”, Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 28, No 1

[8] Frost, (Applying the Innis Method)

[9] ‘‘History of Printing’, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_printing

[10] Eisenstein, Elizabeth (1979) The printing press as an agent of change : communications and cultural transformations in early modern Europe Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press

[11] Levinson, Paul (1997) The soft edge; a natural history and future of the information revolution, Routledge: London, p 12

[12] Levinson, (The soft edge) p 13-15

[13] Penn Olson, “How Social Engagement is Changing [Infographic]” http://www.penn-olson.com/2010/05/12/how-social-engagement-is-changing-infographic/

[14] Fuller, Gillian (2010) ARTS2090 Lecture 10: Ubiquity and personalisation—dividualised distribution, UNSW

[15] Guillaud, Hubert (2010) (on Danah Boyd) ‘What is implied by living in a world of flow?’, Truthout, January 6, http://www.truthout.org/what-implied-living-a-world-flow56203

[16] Guillaud, Hubert (2010) (on Danah Boyd) ‘What is implied by living in a world of flow?’, Truthout, January 6, http://www.truthout.org/what-implied-living-a-world-flow56203

[17] Bhaskar, Michael (2009) ‘E-books in Africa’, The Digitalist, May 28, http://thedigitalist.net/?p=577

[18] Boyd, Danah, in Guillaud, Hubert (2010) (on Danah Boyd) ‘What is implied by living in a world of flow?’, Truthout, January 6, http://www.truthout.org/what-implied-living-a-world-flow56203

[19] [1] Innis,(The Press) p 89

LIST OF REFERENCES

Bhaskar, Michael (2009) ‘E-books in Africa’, The Digitalist, May 28, http://thedigitalist.net/?p=577

Eisenstein, Elizabeth (1979) The printing press as an agent of change : communications and cultural transformations in early modern Europe Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press

Frost, Catherine, (2003) “How Prometheus Is Bound: Applying the Innis Method of Communications Analysis to the Internet”, Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 28, No 1

Fuller, Gillian (2010) ARTS2090 Lecture 10: Ubiquity and personalisation—dividualised distribution, UNSW

Guillaud, Hubert (2010) (on Danah Boyd) ‘What is implied by living in a world of flow?’, Truthout, January 6, http://www.truthout.org/what-implied-living-a-world-flow56203

Innis, Harold (1950) Empire and Communications, Toronto, university of Toronto Press

Innis, Harold ([1948] 2004 The Press: A neglected factor in the economic history of the twentieth century”,  Changing the concepts of time, James W Carey eds, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: Oxford

Kirn, Peter (2010) ‘How a great product can be bad news: Apple iPad and the closed Mac’, Create Digital Music, January 26, http://createdigitalmusic.com/2010/01/27/how-a-great-product-can-be-bad-news-apple-ipad-and-the-closed-mac/

Levinson, Paul (1997) The soft edge; a natural history and future of the information revolution, Routledge: London

Olson, Penn (2010)“How Social Engagement is Changing [Infographic]” http://www.penn-olson.com/2010/05/12/how-social-engagement-is-changing-infographic/

Sims, Judy (2010) ‘Keep the print guys away from the iPod App’, Simsblog, January 28, http://simsblog.typepad.com/simsblog/2010/01/keep-the-print-guys-away-from-the-ipad-app.html

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