Monday, September 7, 2009

Reaching Out Across Space and Time

It is easy to associate the media, many modern states, and business corporations with Harold Adams Innis’ space-biased empire. According to the article “Harold Adams Innis: The Bias of Communications & Monopolies of Power,” “[s]pace-biased media are light and portable; they can be transported over large distances. They are associated with secular and territorial societies; they facilitate the expansion of empire over space.” This characterization falls in line with many modern phenomena, from the ongoing shift from the newspaper to online publication, to the ability to see the President speaking in Germany, Cairo, and Washington D.C. at your leisure and from the convenience of your Sidekick. Even the way clothing stores inundate people with email coupons is a method of using space-biased communication in empire expansion and maintenance.

On the individual scale, people have adopted some of the priorities of the space-biased model as well, allowing for the exchange of information without consideration for the constraints of space. On the one hand, activities such as photo sharing, emails, and online relationships can exist in a network of communication that is not bound by those constraints. On the other hand, these exchanges leave no tangible relics behind. Think of photographs of once-in-a-lifetime moments uploaded from a digital camera onto a laptop. Where are the pictures? Unless one prints them, they exist only in the computer's memory or as a collection of pixels on the desktop. According to Innis’ distinction between the users of space- and time-biased and communication as summarized in the article, the time-biased society opts for the longevity of its communications in the interests of legacy. An artifact that cannot withstand the test of time is lost when the legacy of a civilization is examined at a later date and impacts the examiner's understanding of the past.

I think that the idea of legacy is not exclusively related to the time-biased society but is an ineffable part of the basic human spirit, even in space-biased societies of the Digital Age. People take photographs because it is a way of capturing a moment or a feeling and preserving it. It can be a means of communicating a message with a future self, or a future recipient unknown. The same goes for the emails from loved ones that we move to Saved Mail, or things we Fan on Facebook. Even though the medium we use is a far cry from the oil painting or clay tablet of yore, the desire behind the behavior is still the same. No matter how dynamic communication technology can become, I think there will always be a part of us interested in preserving moments in amber, if for no other reason than to tell someone we were here and give them an opportunity to know us in some capacity. After all, the exchange of knowledge is what communication is all about.


  1. I really liked the way you extrapolated Innis' concepts of time and space biased media to today's Digital Age media like e-mail and Facebook. Your example of a digital photo pretty much covers both time and space biased media. Though I wonder if a photo posted on Facebook will really withstand the test of time, or is Facebook just another fad? I remember all the photos I had posted to sites like LiveJournal and Xanga (that's kind of embarrassing to admit) back when they were popular when I was a teenager, but I haven't look at them in ages. Will Facebook be the same way in 10 years?

  2. That is something that I was trying to get at and had a difficult time expressing, so thank you for your comment. These "artifacts" are essentially intangible and the likelihood of them ever being seen or even existing if something was to happen to the Internet is pretty slim. The use of such an undependable medium to leave one's legacy is a testiment to our society's adoption of space-biased rather than time-biased communication. BUT, the impulse that prompts us to post those pictures at all is basically unchanged: they are relics that we want to preserve, even if we are conditioned to do so in a way that does not ensure their survival.