3.2 Toronto School - Harold Innis

We need not only a broad model, as argued above, but also people who can deal with broad models - that is, generalists. Traditional education has trained specialists. We learn more and more about less and less until, as the cynics say, we know everything about nothing. We are able to speak to fewer and fewer fellow specialists until, as the cynics say, we can speak only to ourselves. When R. Buckminster Fuller sought training as a generalist, he had to join the U. S. Navy. In those days before tele-communications, a lowly lieutenant in command of a mine-sweeper at sea had a mini-universe to control and, therefore, had to be a generalist. Now tele-communications ensures that wars are waged between admirals on shore and even this limited means of training generalists was cut off.

There is a danger that the centralization of control due to further proliferating tele-communications and the apprehension about increasing information overload will further increase the trend to specialization. It is in turbulent transitional times such as those that we need people who can have a broad (albeit admittedly shallow) view of things as well as those who have a narrow and deep view.

The rest of this book will zero in on categories within this broad model. It is important, however, that we retain the bird's-eye view provided in this chapter to supplement the various worm's-eye views which follow. We have to be like artists working on a large canvas, alternating between moving in close to work on details and standing back to see the whole picture. The whole picture of the current transition from an industrial to an information society can be seen only by stepping back and seeing things in one "eye gulp", by means of a general model such as provided in this chapter.

The four generations of media (see Figure 1-3) could be considered as an inset within the technosphere in the Triad Model (see Figure 3-2). Note that the four generations of media and the three transitions between them constitute seven categories. Once again, this is the optimal level of complexity as advocated by George Miller (see Section 3.1 above).

Future studies, the domain of my work at GAMMA, and communication studies, the domain of my work at Concordia University, are among the very few disciplines which permit the training of generalists. They do so because their subject is not a system but an aspect of all systems. Future studies focuses on the future dimension of all systems and communication studies on the communication aspect of all systems. It is to those disciplines that we may look for the introduction of training of generalists in the university system.

Whereas future studies has not been accepted at all, communication studies has established a toe-hold within the academy. A few universities have departments of communication studies, which tend to have lower status than the more established disciplines.26 Within communication studies, the Toronto School best exemplifies the generalist position advocated here. By considering media as extensions of the person, this school places the person firmly in the center, as in the model presented above. The school was founded by Harold Innis, whose work was continued by Marshall McLuhan, whose work is being in turn continued by a group of scholars considered by their supporters as new McLuhans. Since Innis died in 1952, before the assimilation of the third generation of telephone and television, his work will be used to describe the first shift; since McLuhan died in 1980, before the assimilation of the fourth generation of multimedia and internet, his work will be used to describe the second shift; since the new McLuhans are still with us, their work will be used to describe the third shift we are currently all experiencing.

Harold Innis (1894-1952) began his career as a political economist.27 His main focus was on the staples theory of the Canadian economy. Canada began largely as a rentier nation exporting its abundant natural resources and buying back the finished goods.28 He conducted careful studies of the fur industry, the cod industry, and the pulp and paper industry.

However, he came under the influence of Thorstein Veblen, an eccentric economist at the University of Chicago, who argued that one should look at economics within the larger framework of ecology. In his most famous work - The Theory of the Leisure Class - he introduced the concept of conspicuous consumption [VEBLEN]. Innis realized that an economy based on the consumption of non-renewable resources was disastrous for our ecology and doomed as an economic policy. If we sit back on our assets, we would become a Third World country in a post-colonial world in which the developed countries transform our raw materials into finished goods and skim off the profit. Looking at the larger picture, Innis realized that what was printed on the paper was as important as the paper itself.

Thus began his studies of various civilizations in terms of the surfaces on which they chose to write their words and draw their images. If a civilization chose to use stone tablets, then they would conquer time (note that much Egyptian writing is still with us); whereas if a civilization chose to use parchment (the skin of animals), then they would conquer space. It is easier to carry around parchment than stone tablets. Note that the Romans were able to administer most of the known world using parchment. His final two books were wide-ranging explorations of civilizations, in terms of their relative emphasis on the conquest of time and space as a function of the media they used, in contrast to his careful detailed studies of staples [INNIS 1950, 1951]. However, since he had come from a study of paper to a study of what was written on the paper, he never lost sight of the importance of the medium.

His most famous student, Marshall McLuhan, who continued this Toronto School he had started, encapsulated this insight into his famous aphorism: The Medium is the Message. McLuhan considers his work as a footnote to that of Innis. Part of that "footnote" is a metaphor for the structural shift as we assimilated the second generation of print and film. We traded an ear for an eye.

The major difference between the ear and the eye is that we have much more control over the eye than over the ear. We can choose not to see by closing our eyes. We have no earlids.29 We can train our eyes to focus on a point in space to see more clearly, but we can't train our ears to focus on a point in time to hear more clearly. What we see remains, what we hear is gone as soon as we hear it. We can train our eyes to move more precisely along lines and to jump from the end of one line to the beginning of the next line. When information is presented simultaneously to the eye and the ear as in television, the video dominates the audio channel in the famous vampire effect.30

One of McLuhan's students, Paul Levinson, adds in turn a footnote to McLuhan's footnote. He argues that the ear is preferred over the eye under certain circumstances [LEVINSON 1997]. Why, he asks, did the talkies wipe out silent films within a couple of years, whereas television did not wipe out radio? It would seem that the two situations were parallel. In both cases you have a single channel challenged by a double channel. Silent movie is seeing-without-hearing and talkies is seeing-and-hearing; radio is hearing-without-seeing and television is hearing-and-seeing.

The obvious answer is that while listening to radio you can do other things which you can't do while watching television - driving, housework, making love.31 However, Levinson provides a more profound answer - seeing-without-hearing is not part of our human experience. Since we have no earlids, whenever there is video there is also audio. On the other hand, hearing-without-seeing is part of our human experience. Over millions of years, we have experienced hearing-without-seeing, not just because we have eyelids and can choose not to see but because the planet is dark on average half the time.32

This is part of the evidence Levinson assembles for his anthropotropic principle: media must respect human nature, and satisfy human needs. This principle suggests why stereophonic sound is twice as good as mono but quadraphonic sound is not twice as good as stereo. We have two ears. It also suggests why the much-heralded videophone has not yet penetrated the market. We tend to think of privacy in visual rather than auditory terms. Being overheard is okay but not being overseen.33

One familiar violation of the anthropotropic principle is the use of the keyboard and the mouse as input devices for the computer. You have to take one hand off the keyboard every time you use the mouse, prompting many people to complain that "if God meant you to use a mouse, he would have given you three hands". Douglas Engelbart (1925 - ), who invented the mouse, advocated the chord keyset for the other hand [BARDINI]. This was a one-handed keyboard consisting of 5 keys, one for each finger, which translated numbers and letters into a binary code. Tests demonstrated that one could type much faster on this device than on the traditional qwerty keyboard. It also respected the fact that we have two hands. Alas, the traditional keyboard was too well established to be dislodged by an alternative, no matter how reasonable.

26   Indeed, the discipline is very precariously perched on the periphery of the academy. The Communication Studies department at McGill University had to merge recently with the Department of Art History to survive and the Center for Technology and Culture founded by Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto is perpetually threatened with closure.

27   For this section, I'm indebted to my colleague, Dr. Ray Charron, who made the presentation on which it is based to my graduate class. He also read much of the manuscript and made many valuable suggestions for its improvement.

28   Some have even described Canada as a company country. It was initially largely owned by the Hudson Bay Company. This was not so long ago. I came to Canada because of an ad for young Scotsmen to work in the Canadian North trading for furs from the indigenous peoples. One was offered free transportation and Canadian immigration status in exchange for signing up for a two-year term.

29   J. J. Gibson often turned down his hearing aid and went to sleep during colloquia. This was a cue to we graduate students that the presentation was not worthwhile. This was the bright side of his deafness - he had, as he said, volume control.

30   Michael Deaver, a spin-master who worked for Ronald Reagan, admitted that he didn't care what the voice-over was saying about his client or even what his client was saying, he just wanted to get his smiling face on the screen.

31   One of my ruder students pointed out that you can make love while watching television but are limited in positions. He attributes certain Canadian sexual practices to the need for both partners to watch Saturday Night Hockey.

32   Some have argued that Thomas Edison should be considered a major figure in the history of media because his light bulb was not only the basis of electronic media but provided the means of reading books after dark.

33   My thanks to Dr. Ira Nayman for introduction to and enlightening discussion of the work of Paul Levinson. In the early days of electronic extensions to the telephone, I surprised a women friend when she called by addressing her right away by name before she had spoken. How did you know it was me? I have call display. Ah! I better put on some clothes. It's call display not caller display I assured her. Her moment of panic confirmed for me that caller display will not be a service of Bell Canada for some time, despite the exhibit of the videophone they were presenting at Expo 1967 - that is, over thirty years ago.