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The Medium is the Means: The Industrial-Educational Complex

Marshall McLuhan is very well known for developing communications theory, and is famously attributed with the expression “The medium is the message”, which speaks of the different affordances which each medium has for communicating information. Speaking has different affordances from writing, radio has different affordances from television, clay has different affordances from paint…

Marshal McLuhan
Marshal McLuhan

By affordances, it means the qualities and capabilities which the medium has. McLuhan’s work has stimulated a great deal of thinking about the unique abilities of a medium to convey information and ideas, and also the constraints which are inherent.

Conversation with someone, for example, cannot travel across space and time in the way that the written word does. We have the privilege of reading the thoughts and ideas of people who lived thousands of years ago by reading what they wrote, however, we don’t have the ability to have a discussion with, say, Aristotle…

Conversation has many creative possibilities which written language does not; it is dynamic to the situation and is shaped around the spontaneity of the moment. Conversation and free association with other people is an integral part of knowledge building. I have written about knowledge as a communitive process (one which necessarily involves community/communing), which is why I see realtime networks of people as the vital first space of knowledge and learning.

This idea of thinking about the qualities of each medium is very important in engaging more and more people in learning communities. Here, I will be examining some of the thoughts of Marshall McLuhan’s teacher – Harold Innes – who inspired him to develop his ideas in communications theory. I think it is a valuable way to add context and develop subtle nuances to what learning I do; look to the teacher of the thinker you admire.


The Power of Technologies and the Bias in Distribution Networks

Harold Innes became very well known in his time for ideas in the history of economics, in particular he looked at the affordances of the mediums of communication. One of his books – The Bias of Communication – looks at the history of distribution networks of information examining what access people have to communicate across space and across time.

For example, I can write a letter which expresses my thoughts in a certain and distinct way, that can be read on the other side of the world and understood by them without my physically being in their presence. This letter can also be read many years in the future, by someone I will never meet, and they can get a sense of what I want other humans to encounter and think about. In this way, we might consider writing (and other mediums) like a type of time machine…


So, Harold Innes discusses the development of the written word, radio, newspapers and other media. He details who had access to the production and consumption of these media, and encourages us to think about how this shapes the life of this information – and the society which comes of it.

To take an example, the technology of radio was developed by engineers and for a great deal of time was a military technology available only to them. It was so valuable for its quality of allowing people to communicate across space, this provided certain advantages (affordances) for one army to get the edge over another.

It was so useful that it was known that it could enrich civic society by enabling the broadcasting and consumption of cultural goods such as news, music and theatre. At a certain point it was suggested that this monopoly of knowledge should be broken up as the wider benefits of radio transmission technology were of greater value collectively than the hoarding of it for military purposes.

This idea was strongly opposed by the music industry of the time. Those who had vested interests in recorded music and live music performance – that is those who controlled the distribution networks – opposed the deregulation of radio technology. They lobbied to keep radio an obscure technology as they feared that it would disrupt their industry. At the time the music industry suggested that it would be the end of all music should it become available to listen to for free over the airwaves.

This is a good example of excessive control over the production and distribution of a good. The music industry successfully lobbied for a number of years until they could hold the tides of change back no longer. Radio was deregulated and became a civilian technology. Music, arts, news and drama became vastly more accessible to the broad population much to the disdain of those who controlled the music world.

This idea of disruption was discussed by Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist who described the concept of ‘creative waves of destruction’. Creative destruction describes the ‘process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one’.

What happened after the breaking of the monopoly around radio technology, and the disruption of the monopoly of the music industry, is of key interest here in social and economic terms. It was discovered that people having access to free music via the airwaves radically increased people’s appetite for the art form. Music sales increased as people discovered they had a passion for one performer or another.

The fears the music industry engendered were not new. When musical notation was developed as a technology, the same fear of those who produced the music arose. There was a widespread phobia that people would not listen to live music any longer and that the art would die out. Again, as the technology of writing musical notation broke its banks and became common through culture, it served only to fuel people’s natural passion for music.


The Social Division of Knowing

Harold Innes was particularly interested in studying the monopolies of knowledge which had come to shape human civilisations – from the written word being kept as a secret and sacred technology known only to kings and clerics, to the control over the news which those who owned the means of producing newspapers held. He described it as a process of mechanising knowledge, possibly because it removed broad humane societal involvement with the fruits of human endeavour. What follows are excerpts from his book ‘The Bias of Communication’ [Page 190] where he talks about his concerns about the effects of monopoly. This article will focus on some of the points he raises in the text:

“Mechanization has emphasized complexity and confusion; it has been responsible for monopolies in the field of knowledge; and it becomes extremely important to any civilization, if it is not to succumb to the influence of this monopoly of knowledge, to make some critical survey and report. The conditions of freedom of thought are in danger of being destroyed by science, technology, and the mechanization of knowledge, and with them, Western civilization…

…I propose to adhere rather closely to the terms of the subject of this discussion, namely, “a critical review, from the points of view of an historian, a philosopher and a sociologist, of the structural and moral changes produced to modern society by scientific and technological advance.”

I ask you to try to understand what that means. In the first place, the phrasing of the subject reflects the limitations of Western civilization. An interest in economics implies neglect of the work of professional historians, philosophers, and sociologists. Knowledge has been divided to the extent that it is apparently hopeless to expect a common point of view.”

The Democratic Intellect

The point he makes about the division of knowledge is an interesting one if we are to compare the historical the Anglicised system of specialism education which came to impose itself on the whole of the United Kingdom, superseding the traditional generalist pedagogy of Scotland. George Elder Davies discusses this in his book The Democratic Intellect, documenting the continental tradition of learning which was practiced in Scotland which held philosophy at its centre and practiced the exercise of relating ideas from one body of knowledge to another.

Of course, the compartmentalisation of knowledge is both an excellent way of removing greater context from information and creating dependency as well as a categorical way of focusing attention. The application of the division of labour resulted in specialisation and the professionalization of fields of knowledge.

With every advantage which this brought, it also introduced disadvantages for some. Should you not be officially endorsed by the appointed experts of the field, you were in danger of being ostracised as a quack who is overstepping your bounds, introducing ‘unqualified’ thinking which was dangerous and poisonous to the field.

It also meant that people studying the same phenomena were estranged from a means of communicating with colleagues who might have valuable insights that could illuminate key understandings. Knowledge was codified and divided into communities of ingroups and outgroups, and this meant that a language divide was introduced between people.

For example, whereas the fields of biology, physics and chemistry were associated parts of each other; there arose gulfs between the physicist and the chemist, the chemist and the biologist, and the biologist and the chemist. People communicated less around the same phenomena, the community of people was disrupted, and reaching understandings gained an extra significant obstacle.


Recalling the Community in Communication

Harold Innes invites people to unite the languages and learn about the study of many communities of practice so that we can reach a fuller understanding of the practical implications of monopolies of knowledge and economic history of knowledge [Page 191 Bias of Communication]:

“I shall be concerned with an interest in the economic history of knowledge….the work of Graham Wallas….assumed that creative thought was dependent on the oral tradition and that the conditions favourable to it were gradually disappearing with the increasing mechanization of knowledge. Reading is quicker than listening, and concentrated individual thought quicker than verbal exposition and counter-exposition of arguments.

The printing press and the radio address the world instead of the individual. The oral dialectic is overwhelmingly significant where the subject-matter is human action and feeling, and it is important in the discovery of new truth but of very little value in disseminating it. The oral discussion inherently involves personal contact and a consideration for the feeling of others, and it is in sharp contrast with the cruelty of mechanized communication and the tendencies which we have come to note in the modern world.

The quantitative pressure of modern knowledge has been responsible for the decay of oral dialectic and conversation. The passive reading of newspapers and newspaper placards and the small number of significant magazines and books point to the dominance of conversation by the newspaper and to the pervasive influence of discontinuity, which is, of course, the characteristic of the newspaper, as it is of the dictionary.

Familiarity of association, which is essential to effective conversation, is present but is not accompanied by the stimulus which comes from contacts of one mind in free association with another mind in following up trains of ideas. Graham Wallas pointed out, very few men who have been writing in a daily newspaper have produced important original work.”

Community of Practice

What stands out here is the focus Harold brings on ‘personal contact and a consideration for the feeling of others’. Etienne Wenger writes about ‘communities of practice’ in his book with co-authors ‘Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William Snyder, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. This interaction, which he studies, is absolutely central to collective – and individual – achievement. The social and collaborative behaviours of homo sapiens have been one of the primary assets which has enabled the technological advances of our species.

In the micro-social view, the ability to engage with a community of peers in comparing thoughts, observations and testing hypotheses is instrumental for the learning and development of people ‘helping each one to be the best that they can be’. This idea of education, which was expressed by Professor Ray Miller, is an important one. It speaks of a humane and social role for education which transcends a deterministic mechanism that educates for a workforce.


The Privileging of One Type of Knowledge Over Another

We must guard ourselves from our own bias. We know, through collective consideration and problematisation, that our psychologies are prone to confirmation bias and selective attention. We look for the things which confirm our views and select from our observations the things which fit with what we know already.

Currently there is a massive drive in the United Kingdom to promote STEM subjects over the humanities. STEM is an acronym referring to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Whole departments of philosophy have been axed due to the instrumental view of the value of the knowledge which has been adopted. Funding to the humanities has been withdrawn due to the privileging of STEM subjects as they are perceived to be economically more productive.

Karl Popper
Karl Popper

This narrowing view of what is more valuable and what is less valuable may arise from the success of the philosophy of logical positivism which Karl Popper and the Vienna circle developed in the early Twentieth Century. The Oxford Online Dictionary gives the definition:

Positivism: A philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and therefore rejecting metaphysics and theism. The theory that laws and their operation derive validity from the fact of having been enacted by authority or of deriving logically from existing decisions, rather than from any moral considerations (e.g. that a rule is unjust).

Although positivism is an irreplaceable contribution to how we arrive at increasingly reliable knowledge, it makes an assumption that we have developed mathematics and logic sufficiently to express all phenomena in this constructed language. Therefore it is hubris to be dismissive of knowledge which sits outside of our ability to express something exclusively in terms of logic or mathematical proofs.


Vienna circle
Vienna Circle (from left to right: Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Hans Hahn and Philipp Frank.)


The Vienna Circle was a collection of philosophers who reacted against the appropriation of knowledge and the misrepresentation of statements as fact during the second world war. The danger here is that the pendulum swings too far and that the science of positivism sets itself up as the self appointed paladin for all validation of thought. Similarly, when all things are expressed in terms of finance and economy, we are bound to suffer from an impoverishment of experience and ultimately of capability.

Returning to Innes, he examines these possibilities and how they might set up disjunctures which impede society as an open community of practice [Bias of Communication, Page 192]:

“The impact of science on cultural development has been evident in its contribution to technological advance, notably in communication and in the dissemination of knowledge. In turn it has been evident in the types of knowledge disseminated; that is to say, science lives its own life not only in the mechanism which is provided to distribute knowledge but also in the sort of knowledge which will be distributed.

As information has been disseminated the demand for the miraculous, which has been one of the great contributions of science, has increased. To supply this demand for the miraculous has been a highly remunerative task, as is evidenced by the publications of firms concerned with scientific works. Bury described the rapidly growing demand in England for books and lectures, making the results of science accessible and interesting to the lay public, as a remarkable feature of the second half of the nineteenth century.

Popular literature explained the wonders of the physical world and at the same time flushed the imaginations of men with the consciousness that they were living in the era “which, in itself vastly superior to any age of the past, need to be burdened by no fear of decline or catastrophe but, trusting in the boundless resources of science, might surely defy fate.

The average reader has been impressed by the miraculous, and the high priests of science, or perhaps it would be fair to say the pseudo-priests of science have been extremely effective in developing all sorts of fantastic things, with great emphasis, of course, on the atomic bomb.

The effects of obsession with science have become serious for the position of science itself. It has been held that the scientific mind can adapt itself more easily to tyranny than the literary mind, since ‘art is individualism and science seeks the subjection of the individual to absolute laws’ (Albert Guerard, Literature and Society, Boston, 1935, p 80) but Casaubon was probably right in saying that ‘the encouragement of science and letters is almost a personal influence.’”


The Industrial-Educational Complex

Economics is a social science. The relationship of industry to various human activities is an essential one to examine. Alfred Marshall opens his famous book ‘Principles of Economics (1890)’: with the statement ‘Political economy or economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life’.

Another classic definition of economics was proposed by Lionel Robbins in 1932, is “Economics is the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses”. He cites Menger, Fetter, Strigl and Mayer as economists on this statement. [Page 15: Taken from internet 17.02.2015;]

One of the distinctions which should be examined in economics is the difference between natural scarcity and the production of scarcity. The social and environmental circumstances which bring about the establishment of an industry have a part to play in the future paths which remain open to that area of societal production. A famous term was coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower – the ‘Military-Industrial Complex’.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower – 1961


In his address to the population of America, he spoke about how the circumstances of the war created a situation where the society of the United States had geared its industry around generating weapons. He warned that they should remain on guard to any undue influence that the resultant military-industrial complex could have on the workings of the country in peacetime.

This consideration of how a need prompts the generation of an industry, and how that industry then might potentially have influence on the behaviours of the wider culture yields an important understanding which we can examine in the context of the industrialisation of education. How might we take this understanding to help us examine the influence of the Industrial-Educational complex which has arisen out of the identification of learning as a potential source of economic growth.

Education is a merit good which is recognised for sponsoring positive externalities – in simpler terms this means that education is something which is broadly recognised as a good or service which individual or society should have on the basis of some concept of need, rather than an ability and willingness to pay. An externality is a cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.

In Victorian Britain, the Ragged Schools were informal schools initially formed by communities to nurture all the individuals who were part of the society, encourage them to be the best that they can be, and value each for the skills and abilities they have inherent in them. This was a growing communitive behaviour from around 1800 – Thomas Guthrie, great champion of the Ragged Schools movement, suggested it started with John Pounds.

By 1870, so many communities had followed suit as they had seen the positive effects, that the government of the time passed the Forster Education act, absorbed the infrastructure the communities had created and bankrolled it. For the first time in the history of the United Kingdom, there was universal educational provision for children. Thomas Guthrie had early recognised education as a means and end to lifting a vast number of people out of poverty, squalor and the social problems these produced.

Over his time championing the idea of free education and a structure of social support, he revised his pamphlet ‘A Plea For The Ragged Schools’ four times, each time reporting on the improvements to everybody’s lives (positive externalities). By the time the Forster Education Act was passed, he estimated 712 community led schools (Ragged Schools) in Edinburgh, and that the effects of the movement had reduced crime by 75%.

Returning to Harold Innes, we can see some of the commentary he brings to the idea of monopolization of knowledge and learning (Bias of Communication, Page 193]

“The concept of the state in the Anglo-Saxon world has been favourable to the suppression or distortion of culture, particularly through its influence on science. Under the influence of the state, communication among themselves has become more difficult for scientists with the same political background and practically impossible for those with a different political background, because of the importance attached to war.

Mathematics and music have been regarded as universal languages particularly with the decline of Latin, but even mathematics is a tool and has become ineffective for purposes of communication in a highly technical civilisation concerned with war. I can refer only briefly to the significance of mechanized knowledge, as affected by science, to the universities. Reliance on mechanized knowledge has increased with the demands of large numbers of studies in the post war period.

Henry Adams wrote: ‘Any large body of students stifles the student. No one can instruct more than a half a dozen students at once. The whole problem of education is one of its cost in money’ [The Education of Henry Adams, Boston, 1918, p 302].

We have been compelled in the post war period, with the larger number of students, to depend on text books, visual aids, administration, and conferences of university administrators such as we have here. They imply increasing concern with the written mechanized tradition and the examination system, of which Mark Pattison remarked that “the beneficial stimulus which examination can give to study is in an inverse ratio to the quality of intellectual exertion required [Essays by the late Mark Pattison, Oxford, 1889, I, 491].

We can subscribe to his reference: ‘the examination screw, which has been turned several times since, till it has become an instrument of mere torture which has made education impossible and crushed the very desire of learning.’ [Mark Pattison, Memoirs, London, 1885, p. 303].

Monopolies of knowledge

Finally we must keep in mind the limited role of universities and recall the comment that ‘the whole external history of science is a history of the resistance of academies and universities to the progress of knowledge’. Leslie Stephen, referring to the period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England, when there was no system of education, said: ‘There is probably no period in English history at which a greater number of poor men have risen to distinction. Receptivity of information which is cultivated and rewarded in schools and also in universities is a totally different thing from the education, sometimes conferred even by adverse circumstances, which trains a man to seize opportunities either of learning or of advancement.’

One need mention only the names of Burns, Paine, Cobbett, William Gifford, John Dalton, Porson, Joseph White, Robert Owen, and Joseph Lancaster [A. V. Dicey, Lectures on the Relations between Law and Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century, London, 1930, pp, 113, 114.

Compulsory education increases the numbers able to read but does not contribute to understanding. Some of you may remember the comment in a discussion on literature by university graduates: ‘Literature? Sure; we took it in the senior year. It had a green cover.’ [H. W. Boynton, Journalism and Literature and Other Essays, Boston, 1904]. Education is apt to become ‘merely the art of reading and writing, without training minds to principle of any kind, and destitute of regard for virtue and even decency’ [Cyrus Redding, Fifty Years’ Recollections, London, 1858, III, 316].

We are compelled to recognize the significance of mechanized knowledge as a source of power and its subjection to the demands of force through the instrument of the state. The universities are in danger of becoming a branch of the military arm. Universities in the British Commonwealth must appreciate the implications of mechanized knowledge and attack in a determined fashion the problems created by a neglect of the position of culture in Western civilization.

Centralization in education in the interests of political organization has disastrous implications. This becomes one of the dangers of a conference of British Commonwealth universities, since, as Sir Hector Hetherington pointed out, the search for truth is much broader than that which can be undertaken by any political organization.

Referring to the dangers of centralization, Scott wrote over a century ago: ‘London licks the butter off our bread, by opening a better market for ambition. Were it not for the difference of the religion and laws, poor Scotland could hardly keep a man that is worth having’ [The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, Edinburgh, 1890, II, 256]

The universities should subject their views about their role in civilization to systematic overhauling and revise the machinery by which they can take a leading part in the problems of Western culture. For example, we should extend our scholarships to universities on the Continent. Lecturers should be encouraged to write books as a means of compelling them to give new lectures. The universities must concern themselves with the living rather than with the dead.”


Problematising as Part of Mindfulness


The line of problematising which Innes offers us is a way into identifying the bottlenecks and barriers which financialisation and mechanisation brings. Centralization of production brings with it the problems of one-size-fits-all culture; the main problem being, one size does not fit all. In and of itself, it leads to the exclusion and alienation of the most powerful means that homo sapiens has of enriching and sustaining its existence in the face of Titan problems such as illness and destruction of our planetary life systems.

It forms a basis for administration by people remote from the realities of education, and a box ticking culture where agglomerated examination statistics, school/college/university league tables, and self referencing research frameworks misrepresent the learning done, the knowledge build or the human capabilities which have been brought to fruit.

It also perpetuates a whole series of technocratic poverties where people who work within the institutional settings are stripped of as much agency as those the institutions are meant to serve. Time poverty, latency poverty, emotional poverty, social poverty, are all thoughts which condense like dew around the observations which I make when watching the people in the vocational roles which traditionally had agency over their own actions.

There is no doubt that humanity has come a long way, and we should celebrate the collective achievements and individuals who have contributed to those which make up some of the wonders of our world. That said, we must not lose our ability to be critical in the round, and identify when problems arise and the source of their cause. Thinking about monopolies is one tool in language which we have available to analyse our world.


This article has used excerpts from Harold Innes’ book Bias of Communication, University of Toronto Press, ISBN: 0802096069

Bias of communication

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