Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 7, No. 1, 1993
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Ian Angus

Empire, history, and communications viewed from the margins: the legacies of Gordon Childe and Harold Innis

Paul Heyer

In 1950, Harold Innis (1894-1952) was invited by Oxford University to give the Biet lectures on imperial economic history. He was, and still is, Canada's foremost interdisciplinary social scientist, a former Head of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, and President of the American Economic Association. These titles belie the fact that he was one of Canada's most marginal and radical academics, although the Biet lectures did not. They explored the role of communications in the rise and fall of empires, an area which was largely ignored by economic historians. Innis also talked about power, disenfranchisement, and values. His lectures were illiberal (by the standards of the day) and whispered a debt to Marx. They also led to an important book which appeared later that year, Empire and Communications, a definitive treatise in the field known as the social history of communication, or communication/history.

Early in 1951, Australian archaeologist Gordon Childe (1896-1957) reviewed Empire and Communications for the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science. Innis responded. 1 The exchange was brief and has not been noticed by subsequent commentators. It was a significant meeting of kindred spirits. Childe was Australia's most widely published and influential scholar. Like Innis, he worked from the academic and cultural margins, commenting on the history of ancient empires from the colonial experience of a modern one. He was the most knowledgeable critic Empire and Communications could have had, and his work had already influenced Innis' approach to communications/history.

Childe saw Innis' work, despite its shortcomings, as extending an area that was glimpsed, but not developed in his own. He praised Innis for dealing with the history of communication in terms of the media that convey information, rather than through the linguistic content of particular periods. He also saw a materialist emphasis in Innis consonant with his own Marxian influenced approach. Nevertheless, Childe did point out several inaccuracies and misunderstandings in Innis' work, graciously noting that they were perhaps due to the latter's distance from first-hand sources and expert advice. He concluded by praising the Canadian for his courage in pursuing such an important unconventional research area, one that had significant bearing on the kind of archaeological work which Childe and others were doing.

Innis replied by thanking Childe, both for the review and for being kinder than necessary. He also complimented him for being a populariser in the best sense of the term. In conclusion, Innis discussed the strengths and shortcomings of first-hand research in archaeology, and highlighted the importance of Childe's contribution to his own sphere of interest.

Thus, the paths of two major scholars in the history of civilisation passed. Both were in their twilight years, a twilight characterised by a florescence, to borrow from the lexicon of archaeology, rather than a diminishing of their intellectual powers. Innis was stretching political economy and history to accommodate discussions of the relationship between communication media and society; Childe was seeking to explore questions of knowledge and culture through a consideration of the data of prehistory, as well as history.

What follows is a comparative and selective assessment of the circumstances that lead to these formations, and their relevance to a critical and communicationally informed view of modern culture.

Childe's background and major contributions

Born in Sydney, Australia in 1892, Childe studied philology and archaeology at Oxford. Although the latter became his dominant concern, the influence of the former, rarely acknowledged, perhaps played a role in the way he conceptualised social evolution and placed emphasis on the organisation of knowledge in particular epochs. Much of what is known about Childe's personal life is from secondhand observation. He rarely reflected on it in his work, and his correspondences generally lack intimate revelations. We do know that as an Australian in Britain, he felt marginalised in both personal and professional contexts, which he compounded with his eccentric behaviour. Among these eccentricities was a tendency to flaunt his left-wing politics by signing letters in Cyrillic script, asking for a copy of the Daily Worker at posh hotels, prominently displaying that journal in his office, and occasionally using quotations from Stalin in public lectures. 2

Despite a conservative upbringing, Childe was influenced by the radical ideals he encountered while growing up in Australia and he became highly critical of war and religion. When his peers were enlisting in the European conflict, he went to Oxford instead, returning to Australia in 1916, the year of conscription in Britain. During his stay at Oxford, he had frequent contact with R. Palme Dutt, who later became a key figure in the British Communist Party. The two often engaged in lengthy discussions of Hegel, Marx, and the situation in contemporary society, 3 and Childe's first book grew out of these political interests. In 1923, he wrote How Labour Governs: A Study of Worker's Representation in Australia which expressed the disenchantment he was feeling over the co-optation of the original ideals of the Labour Movement. He then returned to England to pursue a full-time academic career.

His illustrious contributions as an archaeological researcher, writer, and teacher, earned Childe academic appointments at Edinburgh and London, and took him to many parts of the world. He taught at Berkeley in the summer of 1939, and influenced an entire generation of American prehistorians concerned with Old World prehistory. Childe himself gave scant consideration to New World prehistory, believing that the civilisations which it studies are located outside the mainstream of world social evolution, his primary concern. His dubious view of their achievements, and failure to include them in his great comparative study What Happened in History (1941) has been justly criticised. 4 Similarly, Innis' comparative of civilisation evidences the same neglect of New World examples. For both men, however, there is much in the archaeology of the Americas capable of enhancing and challenging their major contributions. 5

After World War II, several attempts were made to appoint Childe to a visiting professorship at the University of Chicago but they were impeded by funding problems and his ill health. During the same period, the Department of Economics at the University tried unsuccessfully to secure the services of Innis, who had earned his Doctorate there twenty-five years earlier. In 1953, Childe went on a tour of Russia, several years after Innis had made a similar journey. In 1957, with his health deteriorating, Childe returned to his native Australia after an absence of many years. While hiking alone in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, he fell to his death, perhaps accidentally, possibly by his own volition.

A prolific writer, Childe's reputation resided primarily in his ability to synthesise and integrate on a grand comparative level, rather than from the discovery and excavation of particularly noteworthy sites. Nevertheless, he began his career with several, specific studies partially based on original field research, two of which are particularly significant. In 1925, he published the Dawn of European Civilisation, and in 1928, New Light on the Most Ancient East. Both books anticipate the broad perspective on economics and technology that would characterise his more renowned Man Makes Himself (1936; 1951) and What Happened in History (1941; 1954). They also provide a brief glimpse into the social structure and organisation of knowledge in archaic civilisations, which receive fuller treatment in the later writings.

In Man Makes Himself, Childe attempts to deal with nothing less than the development of the human species from its earliest beginnings, to the emergence of food production and a settled way of life (the "Neolithic Revolution"), to the rise of the world's first civilisation in the Near East (the "Urban Revolution").

What Happened in History extends this trajectory to Greece and Rome. As in the earlier book, emphasis is on major technological innovations such as the wheel, pottery, metallurgy, and writing. These breakthroughs are grounded for Childe in a Marxian inspired perspective on the relations of production, which according to Childe, do not determine ideology in an absolute sense; however, they modify it to the degree that it is consonant with the economic foundation of the society in question. This approach allows for the influence of factors such as trade, transportation, and the development of abstract principles in science leading to new knowledge, but always within a deliberate materialist framework. Little significance is given to the arts or religion as other than responses to economic and technological circumstances.

Of all the innovations that facilitate the transformation to civilisation, Childe put the elaboration of new modes of communication, particularly writing, in a highly important position. In Man Makes Himself, he refers to it as precipitating a "revolution in human knowledge", which becomes a crucial subset of the earlier food producing revolution and is virtually coterminous with the rise of urbanism.

Childe speaks of writing as a technology, an intellectual tool that became the necessary instrument of exact science, accounting, mathematics, and astronomy; a clear anticipation of the position taken by Innis in Empire and Communications. In the archaeological record it is a crucial index of the change in size, economy, and social organisation of any given population. For Childe, writing is a hallmark of civilisation, but it is not an absolute determinant. Other factors must facilitate its introduction and influence. He also points out that Mycenaean Greece falls short of being a fully fledged civilisation, despite the presence of writing among merchants and specialised craftsmen. In this society, the general level of productivity and scale of settlement precluded writing from having the dramatic effect it had in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus valley.

When we look today at the writing systems of the great ancient civilisations, we often deem such communications important because of the way that they can provide access to the cultural and mental world of a bygone time. However, their true significance, according to Childe, resides in the way they affected the more practical situation of economics, administration, and trade. The great changes that occurred in the transformation to urbanism were only possible because the societies in question were able to develop a body of accumulated wisdom and applied knowledge. In Man Makes Himself, he notes how writing influenced the knowledge produced through earlier craft lore and oral tradition, by rendering it permanent in a systematic, specialised manner.

In Childe's analysis, the invention of writing was not merely an idea whose time had come but an innovation forced by productive circumstances. Vast resources had to be monitored by the temples, revenues accounted for, and some unitary control imparted to the expanding resource base. Oral tradition and memory no longer sufficed; even memory enhanced by the use of the mnemonic devices that became prevalent as the threshold of civilisation was approached. The social "progress" that resulted from this development was no less obvious to Childe than it was to other historians and prehistorians, but he also noted some less laudable consequences.

Early writing was not geared toward the production of widespread literacy among the populace. It became the domain of specialists, and therefore consonant with the growth and increasingly complex division of labour and social stratification. In one sense, a scribe was like a weaver or a smithy, but in another sense he was not. The craft of embodying knowledge conferred a more advanced status on its practitioners than was the case with other specialists. As custodians of accounts, medicine, and astronomy, they perpetuated the class divisions and exclusive nature of the new elitist culture, a situation that Innis would later examine using his "monopoly of knowledge" concept.

In 1956, Childe published his last major work Society and Knowledge, as part of Unwin's World Perspectives series, and a year later, Lewis Mumford's (1895-1990) the Transformation of Man also became part of that project, a tribute to the broad critical vision in the work of both men. Society and Knowledge is an archaeologist's attempt to deal with questions of philosophy, the sociology of knowledge, and human communication in general. The book is noteworthy, not because it puts forth definitive arguments, but through the way it reveals a major archaeologist's wide-ranging insight and commitment to interdisciplinary dialogue.

Context and direction in the work of H. A. Innis

Harold Innis' life was intimately linked to many of the major circumstances of the first half of the twentieth century. 6 He both witnessed and commented on major innovations in transportation and communication, and the world that unfolded before him was one of rail travel reaching its height, the electrification of everyday life, radio, the beginnings of television, and the military and personal holocaust of two World Wars.

Innis was born in Otterville in the farm country of southwestern Ontario. The rural-farming way of life, with its variable and unpredictable weather, and just as uncertain market fluctuations, influenced his perception of things at an early age. His high school experience is also of note, particularly the way he commuted, which was on the Grand Trunk Railway. Exposure to this form of transportation (and communication), and the impromptu narratives about it that he gleaned from railway people, opened his mind to historical and geographical ideas that would eventually receive elaboration in his academic career. This rural period in Innis' life, according to Eric Havelock, was an important factor which influenced nostalgia for the oral tradition that would be a main component of his later communication studies. 7

Innis eventually attended McMaster University, then located in Toronto, and graduated during World War I. The pre-law studies that engaged him had some revealing moments, particularly in history and political economy, his favourite subjects. We know that while at McMaster, several inspiring teachers inculcated in him a sense of reflective questioning regarding the nature of knowledge, and James Ten Broeke was one of them. His provocative observation "Why do we attend to the things to which we attend?" profoundly influenced Innis and is cited in the Preface of the Bias of Communication (1951). At McMaster, Innis also learned that although the economic interpretation of history is not infallible, it is a powerful tool.

After graduation, Innis enlisted in the army to fight in the War. His military involvement was in the Signal Corps, an appropriate field given the directions his later work would take. World War I was a veritable history of technology in microcosm, utilising everything from horses to aircraft for transportation, and from carrier pigeons to radio for communication. Innis saw front line duty at Vimy Ridge, suffered a wound to his knee from an artillery shell, and during convalescence began working on an intriguing MA thesis "The Returned Soldier".

Following his return to Canada and completion of his MA, Innis entered law school. Still interested in political economy, however, he enrolled in summer courses at the University of Chicago where he became enthralled by the intellectual spirit which included the likes of Thorstein Veblen, Robert Park, and George Herbert Mean. Although Innis did not study with these luminaries, he seems to have been much influenced by the environment they created. The law career ended and he enrolled full-time in the PhD program in economics. His dissertation, which eventually became a book in 1923, was entitled A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1930, he published another major work The Fur Trade in Canada. Fundamental to this study, as with the previous one, was a first-hand exploration of the country as an accompaniment to the obligatory archival research. With this work, he also established the viewpoint that Canadian history could be approached through examining the development of networks of trade, transportation, and communication.

A further decade of studies on the economic history of Canada led to a third book The Cod Fisheries: A History of an International Economy. To this point, Innis' political-economic studies provided a basis for what has become known as the staples thesis. Innis dealt with the way the dominant features of the country are related to the exploitation of staple resources, such as minerals, fur, timber, fish, grain oil gas, and hydro-electric power. He contended that the regional development which occurs as a result of the extraction of staples follows a pattern that serves the interests of major centres of power, leading to one-sided and regional exploitation. Social disparity and instability often result. In later years, after Innis had shifted his interests to global communications concerns, certain features of his original thinking persisted. These in turn were applied to the new situation where information took on the role of a commodity, and were used to explain how the tendencies of information distribution created another kind of dependency relationship between the centre and the margin.

Innis' research brought him many honours. In 1937, he was appointed Head of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, at a time when he was also working on commissions dealing with regional economic planning. In 1943, he was offered a prestigious position at the University of Chicago, which he declined, preferring to remain in Canada. He helped establish the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Councils, and the Association of Economic History and its Journal. Innis died of cancer in 1952, just before he was due to deliver his presidential address to the American Economic Association. He left us with a revealing map of the field, suggestively outlined in Empire and Communication (1950), The Bias of Communication (1951), and Changing Concepts of Time (1952).

Despite the notorious complexity and difficulty of Innis' later work in communication/history, the basic ideas are accessible enough. History is perceived as a series of epochs separated by discontinuity, and these epochs are distinguished by dominant forms of media that absorb, record, and transform information into systems of knowledge consonant with the institutional power structure of the society in question. The interaction between media form and social reality creates biases, which strongly affect the society's cultural orientation and values. These communication biases function as a first and last point from which we can assess the character of civilisation. To understand any epoch, of course, we have to take into account a considerable amount of material. However, to grasp its basic processes and dominant cultural patterns, Innis believed that a perspective based on communications can be more revealing than one based soley on relations of production or belief systems, in part because modes of information organisation and transmission cross-cut so many features of the social fabric. From the oral tradition of preliterate cultures, through different types of writing and print, to the electronic media of our own time, communication media have been integral to the functioning of all social institutions.

This perspective, and the associated analysis, are far less simplistic than they appear at first glance. Unlike McLuhan, who often made direct leaps from media to cultural traits, Innis acknowledges the complexity of the interplay. For example, in understanding a particular society from a communications/history perspective, the dominant medium has to be considered in terms of its inherent properties, be that medium spoken language in a primary oral culture; stone, clay, papyrus, or parchment in early civilisation; or printed paper and electronic media in modern times. This consideration must be accompanied by an assessment of the form of communication used by the medium in question. If the medium is used for writing, what kind of script is employed, cuneiform, hieroglyphic, syllabic, or phonetic. Also, what are its characteristics and how do they articulate with the medium in question? Finally, any analysis of culture and communication must be grounded in the economics surrounding both the production of the dominant medium, and the institutional framework that incorporates it.

Within the strategy of this program are several major, theoretical concepts; among them, the notion of an oral tradition, time and space bias, and monopolies of knowledge.

Innis' insistence on the importance of understanding the oral tradition anticipates the importance that it has been given by contemporary scholars of communication, such as Walter Ong and Jack Goody. It is used as a starting point for several key discussions in both Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communication. Although the reasons for this emphasis are never rendered explicit, the logic appears direct and compelling. If we are to understand as fully as possible the transformations brought about by complex, technological developments, especially in the realm of communications, then we must have a sense of the way things were previously. This perspective can help us see ourselves in revealing the unconventional ways, and enable us to assess the losses as well as the gains in the pace and direction in which civilisation develops. This vision is anthropological; more precisely, it constitutes a philosophical anthropology and has roots that can be traced back to eighteenth and nineteenth century social thought in the primitive/civilised dichotomy of Rosseau, Marx, Engels, Morgan, Maine, and a host of others.

For Innis, the important feature of an oral tradition is not its aural nature, as McLuhan has stressed, but the way it emphasises dialogue and inhibits the emergence of monopolies of knowledge leading to over-arching political authority, territorial expansion, and the inequitable distribution of power and wealth. Writing, in contrast, yields a "transpersonal memory". Historically, it has facilitated abstract thought, giving rise to science and mathematics, and although it freed thought from the subjective realm of the oral tradition, it rendered social obligations in law and economics explicit. Innis, of course, did not use this oral/literate contrast to advocate a romantic return to the former. Rather, it functioned as an element in a critical theory of knowledge, whereby recapturing something of the "spirit" of the oral mode, with its attendant elasticity, would, he believed, foster intellectual exchange and generate a sceptical attitude toward entrenched dogma.

Perhaps the most frequently cited and ambitious of Innis' formulations regarding the history of communication and empire, are those pertaining to time and space. His contentions in this area are sweeping. Just as each civilisation has a dominant form of communication, it also has a resulting bias in cultural orientation toward either time or space. Rarely does a situation of balance and stability occur. According to Innis, the way time and space are accentuated through communications is a crucial factor in the rise of empires and their eventual collapse.

Time-biased or time-binding societies tend to be those based on durable media that are difficult to transport; examples cited are the ancient empires reliant on stone or clay, and medieval Europe employing parchment. Like oral societies, which Innis also deemed to be time-bound, these civilisations were tradition-oriented. They emphasised custom, continuity, community, the sacred, and moral, which impeded individualism as a dynamic for innovation, but allowed it to flourish in terms of expressive communication, especially in the language used to convey dominant ideas. But, with the empires in question, as opposed to purely oral cultures, the time-bias led to hierarchical social orders that allowed an elite group, whether Egyptian (Early Dynasties), Babylonian priests, or the Catholic clergy of the Middle Ages, to form a powerful class with exclusive access to a monopoly of knowledge. Such monopolies, as Innis points out with numbers, but at times disconnected examples, became a powerful tool in regulating the division of labour of the populace, and this resulted from their interpretive hold on time connected to the calendrical reckoning of seasonal cycles.

According to Innis, these time-biased empires are often subject to challenge and eventual collapse as a result of the introduction of a lighter, more portable, space-biased medium that facilitates a different, institutional emphasis. In Egypt, papyrus challenged stone and helped bring about the expansionist Roman Empire. In medieval Europe, paper, and later print, both adaptable to the use of the vernacular, challenged the Latin entrenched scribal cultures which were dependent on parchment. Space-biased media were able to do this because the rigidity of the time empires created tensions that left them susceptible to major upheavals. There is perhaps a hint here of the Hegelian dialectic.

Unlike tradition-oriented, time-binding media, those biased toward space tend to be present and future directed, facilitating expansionist empires that subjugate marginal groups. Such empires are characterised by administration over great distances, complex political authority, the growth of secular institutions, and the creation of abstract science and technical knowledge. These features entailed the loss of a sense of place, community, and gave rise to a whole new series of monopolies of knowledge.

In today's world, space-biased media in the form of modern electronic communications, have assumed unparalleled influence. In the guise of giving greater access to, and democratising information, they can entrench modes of domination that in some ways resemble what took place in previous epochs. It is the rich and powerful nations able to exploit this technology to its limits who, in the process of making it available to others, extend their information empires.

Perhaps the best way of appreciating the link which Innis had in mind between information and empire can be seen in his concept of the monopoly of knowledge. In his analysis, he claimed to be applying the economist's concept of monopoly to the wider issue of knowledge distribution. His basic assumption is that the media of communication through which the conceptual systems of an epoch are formed, disclose the blueprint for its domination as well.

The properties of the dominant medium, along with the pre-existing institutional structure, facilitate knowledge, and therefore power, being localised in such a way that they serve particular interests, and are always inaccessible to a large segment of the population. This is as true for capitalist Europe, emerging along with, and utilising moveable-type printing, as it was in the case of Babylonian theocracy, incorporating cuneiform writing on clay tablets. Even in contemporary universities, this trend is leading to what he called "academic monopolies of knowledge". Innis personally attacked this situation by critiquing obsessive specialism through his contributions to interdisciplinary work, and also by involving himself with practical social issues, such as regional planning and adult education.

Innis' analysis of monopolies of knowledge suggests that they may be an inevitable aspect of historical formation. At the very moment when one seems shattered, another rises in its stead. His most telling example is the way the dominant control of knowledge by the parchment-wielding clergy of the Middle Ages was challenged by print, which through the mass production of competing points of view, opened access to world understanding for larger numbers of people than ever before. Nevertheless, despite the ideology of a free press, this technology, like others before it, developed restrictions on what was acceptable content, and fostered a particular kind of social control, which in turn led to a new series of monopolies of knowledge. Innis had no utopian vision of an egalitarian future free from such restrictions, but rather what should have been an ongoing challenge to the extremes and inequities that resulted.

Although the later Innis only touches on the history of electronic media, he regarded it as a domain worthy of serious study in light of the previous concepts. Through the telegraph and newspapers, and later through agricultural broadcasting, the space-bias of electric communications drew ever more remote producers of goods under the direct influence of central institutions, such as banks, corporations, and commodity exchanges. The essential tension that his work suggests, is that the initial result of newspapers, the telegraph, and radio was to give primary producers - such as trappers, fishermen, and farmers - access to market information providing them with advantages in their dealings with middlemen. However in the long term, these media helped draw even the most remote harvester into the sphere of larger systems. What, at one level, provided human agents with information and a means of negotiation, bypassing barriers or inspiring alternative actions; at another level, helped explain how metropolitan centres, nation-states, and empires, all use media to reproduce their influence by establishing cultural, as well as economic monopolies, over time and space.


Through the force of their work Childe and Innis achieved wide recognition, if not always acceptance. Both viewed the way the world worked, and works, from the margins. But their marginality differed. Childe came from a country at the far end of an empire on the wane; Innis from one closer geographically to that empire, but vulnerable to the American desire to play the game that had benefited, and eventually exhausted, Britain and other European nations. Childe became an archaeological specialist with a generalist's vision. Innis's direction was almost the reverse. From the broad concern of political economy and ultimately world history, he concentrated on an unusual specialty, communications. Each seemed to recognise in the other a kinship, born out of interests and concerns that were complementary, rather than identical.

Innis was heir to strategic circumstances that allowed him to both profit from, and critique, what the British and American traditions offered. The result is a critical theory of communication that has ongoing relevance and has been recently gaining an international audience. 8 It is grounded in history, in the deepest chronological sense, the kind of history Childe tried to make sense of in his study of the empires of antiquity.

But it was Innis who more directly engaged the present. He shows us that although the media of civilisation change, there is often continuity in the way they are used. Monopolies of knowledge and disparate relationships between the centre and the margins are still with us. His work provides us with useful historically informed concepts with which to critically study these issues. It voices a spirit that is undeluded by false optimism, sometimes skeptical, but never resigned.


1. See Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, v.xvii, February, 1951; and v.xvii, May, 1951.

2. Bruce Trigger, Gordon Childe: Revolutions in Archaeology (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980), p.80.

3. Ibid, p. 33.

4. Glyn Daniel, The Idea of Prehistory (London: Watts and Co., 1962) presents a critique of this shortcoming that is nonetheless highly respectful of Childe's work.

5. This is suggested in Marcia and Robert Ascher's Code of the Quipu (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981). They are among the few archaeologists to apply the concepts of Innis.

6. Part of what follows appears in David Crowley and my introduction to the new edition of Harold Innis' The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991).

7. Eric Havelock, Harold A. Innis (Toronto: Harold Innis Foundation, 1982), p.37.

8. This influence has been further discussed by David Crowley and myself. See note 6.

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