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Innis Mode and the Internet

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The late Harold Innis was an economist and pre-McLuhan philosopher of communications&#8212in fact, he taught Marshall McLuhan, who has acknowledged his influence in the introduction to Understanding Media*. In two books (Empire and Communications, and The Bias of Communication) published before his death in the early 50s, Innis introduced two wide-ranging concepts: time- and space-dependent media, and the hyperlink.

That’s right&#8212the blue underscored links to nuggets of information stored somewhere else are an outgrowth of the theories and thoughts of a Canadian economist who was dead a scant five years after the communication age began with the invention of the transistor.

According to Innis, space-dependent communications (as with paper or web pages), because they are arranged spacially and easily transported from one location to another, foster civilization- and empire-building, and the growth of empire, bureaucracy and the military. Speech and oral communications (as with TV, radio, MPEG and .wav) are time-dependent, and foster close communities, tradition and the organization of knowledge chronologically.

The bias of which Innis wrote is the way the predominant communication mode tends to reshape the civilization it informs. So the world of the mid-1900s in which Innis and McLuhan codified these concepts&#8212a world of radio and newspaper, of TIME magazine and the newly-born TV&#8212cannot possibly resemble the world of 2004 in which newspapers and news-magazines have been supplanted by the Internet, and the chronological spoon-fed presentation of TV and radio has been replaced by the on-demand, at-will Google search.

*It is in McLuhan’s Understanding Media that we first see the enigmatic contention “the medium is the message”.

Two writers who use “Innis mode” extensively to break the chronological chains of written fiction are John Brunner (who noted in the opening pages of his seminal Stand On Zanzibar that he had used Innis mode) and Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver).

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  • Fascinating concepts fostered by this Innis fellow. Reading through your review, I thought about The Roman Empire and the use of paper and writing in the fostering of its empire. I can only think that the Internet will foster empires of communications, though I hold out hope that this will be used mostly for good.

    Though Innis wrote from the standpoint of the mid-Twentieth Century, it seems as though his theories are turning out to be entirely prescient.

    Eric Berlin
    Dumpster Bust: Miracles from Mind Trash

  • Now that we’re out of the limelight, I can tell you that I would not recommend either Innis or McLuhan as an enjoyable read. Of the two, Innis is slightly more accessible.

    If I hadn’t read The Bias of Communication over the course of a week’s stay in a hospital, I would never have taken it on!

    The science fiction writers who have used Innis Mode to create “virtual hyperlinks” in their material make Innis’ theories work for them. In a comment about Cryptonomicon, I talked about Pynchon possibly being another writer who uses Innis Mode.

    Have you read anything by Thomas Pynchon? (Gravity’s Rainbow?)

  • I’m unfortunately one of those people who must have intellectual/scientific/dry non-fiction distilled and buffed up and made pretty and spoon fed to me so that I can appreciate and understand it. On my good days I like to think of myself as a Big Picture or Macro kind of person. Therefore, I can collect the term “Innis Mode” into my mind-trap and hope that it clicks into the correct mode-thought at the appropriate time in future.

    Anyway, I’m afraid I’ve not read Pynchon, though his is another name I’ve heard of or seen around. Would you recommend his work?

    In my fiction writing, I tend to often stray into “speculative” territory, which makes me feel as though I ought to be much more ingrained in the sci-fi must-reads than I am at present. Of course, my “sci fi” is entirely on the “soft” or “sociological” side, but that’s really not an exuse, I’m afraid.

  • I haven’t read any Pynchon, either. I think I subjected a Thomas Pynchon novel to the Rule of 33 once, and it didn’t pass muster. (grin)

    You have to have a way to filter out what you will probably not enjoy – if “soft” sociological sci-fi trips it for you, stick with it.

    What books fit that description, BTW?

  • That’s actually a good question, and one that I had to think about for a little while. A quick look at my book shelf provides me with several answers:

    “Katastrophe,” by Richard Boyll, in which a man is accused of being the reincarnation of Adolph Hitler

    “Ballroom of the Skies,” by John D. MacDonald (one of my favorite authors), where a near-future Earth becomes a staging ground for galactic warriors.

    “Otherwise Pandemonium,” by Nick Hornby, about a man who buys a VCR that fast-forwards into an apocalyptic future.

    So they are stories that have supernatural or otherworldly elements but do not provide a lot of hard science background or detail, as Asimov or Frank Herbert or Orson Scott Card would.

    I hope that’s a decent explanation.

  • I love the Rule of 33, by the way, and plan on using it immediately. I wonder if there’s an equivalent in music: Rule of 8, perhaps, where you listen to the first 8 seconds of the first 8 tracks before deciding whether or not to purchase a CD?

    BTW – do you have any examples of supreme successes or failures in using the Rule of 33?

  • I’m looking at one of the great successes right now: The Glass Harmonica by Louise Marley. I had bought and read The Terrorists of Irustan by her, but it was years ago, and I didn’t remember the experience. So:

    …for a new pair then, Mr. Franklin, lest you ruin your feet.
       Eilish hardly comprehended the idea of going to a bootmaker for boots. Her own dilapidated shoes came from the Rag Fair, like everything else she wore. She stared around at the overfurnished room, the shelves and tables, even the harpsichord crowded with snuffboxes, clocks and figurines… Any single one of these… gewgaws would have fed Dooya and Mackie for a week…

    See what I mean? You get the flavor of the author’s voice in a very short order.

    Put it together with any cover text or excerpt the publisher provides, and you get a very good idea if the book will be enjoyable to you.

    I have been burned buying books without applying the Rule of 33 (a recent purchase of Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire comes to mind), but I can’t think of a time when a book passed the test, then was not at least palatable.