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Backwards Up Niagara Falls: Space/Time, Image/Text and the Biases of Information
Unformatted Document Text:  4 followed the rise of (spatially biased) papyrus and the brush and the development of hieratic writing – ‘compelled [my emphasis] the king to attempt a solution to problems of continuity’ (1999: 35). This solution was attempted mainly through the establishment of an imperial religion which did not distinguish between Egyptian and non-Egyptian subjects. Thus the spatial bias of a communication technology is counterbalanced by an ideological initiative. And this ideological initiative failed (as did this Egyptian empire, in Innis’ account) because of the entrenched power and opposition of a social group – the priestly class – who enjoyed a monopoly of knowledge facilitated by a prior, time-binding, communication technology: hieroglyphic writing and stone. So different, competing monopolies of knowledge based upon what we might call (with apologies to Raymond Williams) ‘residual’ and ‘emergent’ time- binding and space-binding media may be co-present in social systems, producing historically specific tensions and struggles for dominance. It may not be clear from my description that the notion of bias, at least in Innis’ hands, is very far from being a blunt instrument. Its use is always historically particular and highly sensitive to cultural and social context. And what is perhaps even less clear from this discussion, but no less important, is that the notion of bias cannot simply be a question of the dissemination of knowledge across territories and generations. On the second page of the same essay Innis writes: We can perhaps assume that the use of a medium of communication over a long period will to some extent determine the character of knowledge to be communicated (1999: 34). We may grope our way to understanding what Innis means by the ‘character of knowledge’ by returning to the example of ancient Egypt. The entrenched priestly class who opposed the move to an imperial religion was ‘supported by a difficult script’. Hence a monopoly of knowledge, and the time-biased religious social hierarchy it established, was in part an effect of coding complexity– a complexity whose mastery required long initiation: i.e. coding

Authors: Frosh, Paul.
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4
followed the rise of (spatially biased) papyrus and the brush and the development of hieratic
writing – ‘compelled [my emphasis] the king to attempt a solution to problems of continuity’
(1999: 35). This solution was attempted mainly through the establishment of an imperial
religion which did not distinguish between Egyptian and non-Egyptian subjects. Thus the
spatial bias of a communication technology is counterbalanced by an ideological initiative.
And this ideological initiative failed (as did this Egyptian empire, in Innis’ account) because
of the entrenched power and opposition of a social group – the priestly class – who enjoyed a
monopoly of knowledge facilitated by a prior, time-binding, communication technology:
hieroglyphic writing and stone. So different, competing monopolies of knowledge based upon
what we might call (with apologies to Raymond Williams) ‘residual’ and ‘emergent’ time-
binding and space-binding media may be co-present in social systems, producing historically
specific tensions and struggles for dominance.
It may not be clear from my description that the notion of bias, at least in Innis’ hands,
is very far from being a blunt instrument. Its use is always historically particular and highly
sensitive to cultural and social context. And what is perhaps even less clear from this
discussion, but no less important, is that the notion of bias cannot simply be a question of the
dissemination of knowledge across territories and generations. On the second page of the
same essay Innis writes:
We can perhaps assume that the use of a medium of communication
over a long period will to some extent determine the character of
knowledge to be communicated (1999: 34).
We may grope our way to understanding what Innis means by the ‘character of knowledge’
by returning to the example of ancient Egypt. The entrenched priestly class who opposed the
move to an imperial religion was ‘supported by a difficult script’. Hence a monopoly of
knowledge, and the time-biased religious social hierarchy it established, was in part an effect
of coding complexity– a complexity whose mastery required long initiation: i.e. coding


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