“A Plea for Time”

“A Plea for Time”
-Innis begins his essay stating that all historians, including economic historians, always assume a time
factor. Therefore, their assumptions have a tendency to reflect the attitude towards a time period of
which they write.
-History has taken on different meanings and its content is apt to reflect an interest in immediate facts,
such is suggested by the words “all history proves”. Innis argues that as a result of this, history tends to
always repeat itself but what changes are the accents of the period in which it is written.
-Knowledge of the past is then only needed to serve the present and the future.
“The danger that knowledge of the past may be neglected to the point that it ceases to serve the
present and the future-perhaps an undue obsession with the immediate, support my concern about the
disappearance of an interest in time (61).”
-The situation for the economic historian is somewhat different. Innis argues that economic historians
are in a particularly exposed position. However, because of this exposure, the economic historian may
have a strengthened urge to discover a solution towards the attitude of time. “The economic historian
must consider the role of time or the attitude towards time in periods which he attempts to study, and
he may contribute to an escape from antiquarianism, from present-mindedness, and from the bogeys of
stagnation and maturity (62).”
-In this sense, while Innis states it is impossible for the economic historian to avoid the bias of the time
period in which he writes, he may be able to point to some of the dangers.
-Innis points out that astronomical time is only one of several different types. Social time for instance
has been described as qualitatively differentiated according to different beliefs and customs which are
unique to many groups. Innis argues that it is too abstract and is completely unsuited to formal
precision. “Neither time nor space is abstractly conceived; time proceeds by cycles and is round; space is
square (62).” On the other hand, Innis argues that the linear concept of time is more effective and was
made this way as a result of humanistic studies in the Renaissance.
-Innis argues that in Western Civilization, a stable society is dependent on an appreciation of a proper
balance between the concepts of space and time. In this regard, we must “appraise civilization in
relation to its territory and in relation to its duration (64).”
-Innis states that the medium of communication always tends to create a bias that is favourable either
to space or to time, hardly ever to both. “”The character of the medium of communication tends to
create a bias in civilization favourable to an overemphasis on the time concept or on the space concept
and only at rare intervals are the biases offset by the influence of another medium and stability
achieved (64).” Innis provides an example. There was a dependence on the papyrus role and the use of
the alphabet in the beauracray of the Roman Empire. This was then offset by a dependence on
parchment codex in the church and a balance was maintained in the Byzantine Empire until 1943.
-Innis outlines that that pervasive character of the time concept makes it difficult to appreciate its
nature and, furthermore, difficult to suggest its conservative influence.
-Innis provides a brief survey of the outstanding problems of time which may perhaps enable us to
understand more clearly the limitations of our civilization as well as many of the problems civilizations of
the past have encountered. One includes the sexagesimal system prevalent in Great Britain where the
monetary system is sexagesimal. “The advantages of the sexagesimal system are evident in calculations
which permit evasion of the problem of handling fractions and have been exploited effectively in the
development of aviation with its demands for rapid calculation (65).
-On the other hand, Innis uses Egypt as a counter example to illustrate his next argument. The power of
absolute kings over time and space was reflected in Egypt by the building of the pyramids which remain
a standing monument to justify their confidence, in the development of mummification, a tribute to
their control over eternity, and in the belief in immortality. The absolute monarchy reflected
monumental architecture of the pyramids and in sculpture and although it was offset by the power of
the priesthood based on complex systems of writing and the use of papyrus, absolutism passed with
control over time into the hands of the priesthood and checked expansion over space in the Egyptian
“The emphasis of civilization on means of extending its duration as in Egypt accompanied by a reliance
on permanence gives that civilization a prominent position in periods such as the present when time is
of little significance (66).”
-Innis shifts to dating back to the collapse of the empire in the West. The church supported dating
systems starting from the supposed year of the birth of Christ.
-The Christian system followed that of the Roman religion in giving a fixed year for the birth of Christ.
This year was also awarded with a unique position. “Spread of monasticism and the use of bells to mark
the periods of the day and the place of religious services introduced the regularity in life of the West
-Innis argues that what came with all of this was regularity. “Regularity of work brought administration,
increase in production, trade, and the growth of cities (72).”
-The struggle between church and state for control over time. There was a weakening of control over
time by the church and accompanied with limited control by the state left a “vacuum” which was
occupied by industry. “The church, particularly in the monastic orders, had introduced a rigorous
division of time for services following the spread in the use of clocks and bell. But industrial demands
mean fresh emphasis on the ceaseless flow of mechanical time. Establishment of time zones facilitated
the introduction of uniformity in regions (74).”
-An advance in the state of industrialism, Innis argues, meant a decline in the importance of biological
time which was determined by agriculture. New time would evidently follow the industrial world.
“The persistence of Easter as a moveable feast points to the conservative character of time
arrangements (74).”
-A balanced civilization in its concern with the problem of duration or time and of extent or space is
faced with several difficulties. In terms of duration, systems of government have often been defeated
by biology, when dynasties fail to provide a continued stream of governing capacity and by technology.
In terms of space and duration combined, it appears to depend on the dual arrangement between
church and state, where the church is subordinate. (75)
-Innis states that it is not his goal in this paper to detail all the new inventions for the measurement of
time, or to suggest the potential implications for these inventions.
-However, he is concerned with societies obsession with present mindedness, and furthermore that the
balance between time and space and been “seriously disturbed with disastrous consequences to
Western Civilization” (pg. 76).
-Innis uses the example o printing to illustrate his argument. He states that printing has emphasized
“divisions between states based on language without implying a concern with time. For example he
argues that “In Europe division between languages has been accentuated by varying rates in
development of the printing industry.
-He furthers his argument by stating that “Not only has the press accentuated the importance of the
English language in relation to other languages, it has also created divisions between classes within
English speaking countries” (pg. 77).
- In other words, the printing press worked to set up a language hierarchy in which English was at the
top and all other languages fell somewhere below.
-At the same time a prininting was increasing in popularity, Innis states large scale newspaper plants and
“effective devices for widening markets for newspapers” increases rapidly (pg. 77). * late 19th century*
- Moreover, Innis then points to the fact that alongside technological advance in the production of
newspapers accompanied the development of metropolitan centers.
-All of this Innis argues led to a monopoly of communication.
Innis states “the printing industry has been characterized by decentralization...” (pg. 82).
-Innis then argues that the “the demands of the new media were imposed on the older media
(newspaper and books).
-According to Innis it was with these developments that time was destroyed.
- In the last few pages Innis reviews again civilizations such as the Egyptians and Greeks in hopes to draw
attention to their success in achieving and maintaining a balance between time and space.
-He concludes by saying that “We must somehow escape on the one hand from our obsession with the
moment and on the other hand from our obsession with history. In freeing ourselves from time and
attempting balance between the demands of time and space we can develop conditions favourable to
an interest in cultural activity” (pg.90).
Innis is concerned with the issue of present mindedness how this creates a unbalanced civilization.
Innis argues that our current civilization emphasizes the immediacy of communicating in time over the
stability of space. Innis’ argues that if there was any hope in restoring balance and stability in our sped
up global technological society it lay in recovering a sense of time.
Innis’s plea for time was for local and personal communication, (short distance communication) to
offset the more commercially and monopoly biased media of fast long distance communication.
He emphasized face to face dialogue and the spoken word, versus formal texts and discourse.
1). How can Innis understanding about the monopolization of communication and the ownership of the
media be applied in today’s world? Who owns and controls the media?
2). How do you think Innis would feel about the internet as a medium for communication? How would
he feel about university classes being offered online?