Assessment 3 – Essay-in-lieu-of-examination

Q5: ‘[C]ivilization has been dominated at different stages by various media of communication such as clay, papyrus, parchment, and paper produced first from rags and then from wood. Each medium has its significance for the type of monopoly of knowledge which will be built and which will destroy the conditions suited to creative thought and be displaced by a new medium with its peculiar type of monopoly of knowledge’ (Innis, Harold, The Press: A neglected factor in the economic history of the twentieth century. London: Oxford University Press1949, p. 5).


What differences do different archives make? What is the relationship between particular archives and the ways of living they allow/make possible? What kinds of authority do particular archives assist or challenge?

The Archive Contagion

“Monopolies of Knowledge” & the Centralisation of Power

In order to understand society’s infatuation with archival, this essay will look at Canadian scholar, Harold Innis’ conceptualisation of “monopolies of knowledge.”

Through a criticism of Innis’ dialectical theory of dominant media forms and an analysis of “monopolies of knowledge” it reveals the impacts that archives have on society as well as the types of authority that particular archives assist and challenge.

Defining “Archive”

It is disseminated in Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression that power, politics and technology play a distinctive role in shaping the semiotic meaning of the term “archive” (Stokes 2003).

Over the centuries the definition of “archive” has changed significantly from a ‘residence of the superior magistrates… [and] those who commanded… [where] official documents [were] filed-’ to ‘a collection of information permanently stored on the Internet’ (Derrida 1996, p. 2). This shift in definition is indicative of the changing nature of “monopolies of knowledge” over time.

Merging Archives with “Monopolies of Knowledge”

Throughout history we have witnessed the rise and fall of technological mediums. The advent of innovative technologies gives rise to new and peculiar types of “monopolies of knowledge”, which often are congruent to the ruling class’ agenda. This is explicated in Innis’ statement that, ‘the complex system of writing becomes the possession of a special class and tends to support aristocracies’ (Innis 1951, p. 4). Consequently, the government of the day seeks to maintain their power via communications technologies (Watson 2006, p. 357).

This ideology is impliedly elucidated in Innis’ assertion:

‘[C]ivilization has been dominated at different stages by various media of communication such as clay, papyrus, parchment, and paper produced first from rags and then from wood. Each medium has its significance for the type of monopoly of knowledge which will be built and which will destroy the conditions suited to creative thought and be displaced by a new medium with its peculiar type of monopoly of knowledge’ (Innis 1949, p. 5).

The varying communications media referred to by Innis in actuality are modes of publishing, which over time have been displaced by new communication mediums. The forms of publishing mentioned, “clay, papyrus, parchment and paper” all serve the purpose of archival. In other words, these modes of publishing create archives. The aforementioned forms of publishing can also be classified as time or space biased media.

Marvin explores Innis’ dichotomy of communication bias. She states:

Time-biased media foster hierarchy, decentralization, provinciality and tradition’ (1983, pp. 20-38).

Hence, time-biased media are authoritative but not far-reaching. Examples include: clay, stone, parchment as well as the spoken language or ‘oral tradition’ (Edward 1994). Whereas,

 ‘Space-biased media promote centralization, bureaucracy, secularism, imperialism and the use of force’ (Marvin 1983, pp. 20-38).

Thus, space-biased media are not authoritative but are far-reaching. Examples include: paper, electronic signals.

Innis argues the ‘hostility’ within the dichotomy (“The Bias of Communication”) wherein one medium displaces the other is what leads to the creation of “monopolies of knowledge” (Library & Archives Canada 2007).

Ultimately, archives expose the succession of communication mediums throughout history. These successions bring to light the stages of displacement wherein mediums become obsolete in order to make way for new “monopolies of knowledge”.

The Importance of Archives & the Centralisation of Power

The importance of archives was formally recognised via the development of the Universal Declaration of Archives by the ICA (International Council on Archives). The explanatory note of the declaration states:

‘The adoption of the Universal Declaration of archives by UNESCO emphasizes the importance of including wide public access to archives as an essential component of knowledge societies and of culturally and linguistically diverse communities,’ (UNESCO Conference 36th Session Paris 2011, Explanatory Note, paragraph 6).


The endorsement of the Declaration by UNESCO suggests that archives have become omnipotent.

From a politics perspective archives assist in achieving government transparency and accountability. Moreover, archives serve a more important purpose of preserving the ‘social memory’ (UNESCO Office in Dakar 2011).

However, the way in which archives have been formed and created over the centuries may be considered a cause for concern. Eley suggests that we should proceed with caution and conduct further research rather than rely on archives themselves; as he posits,  ‘archives are extraordinary partial and contingent things’ (2005, p. 164). Arguably, Eley’s assertion harbours undertones of uncertainty in relation to the neutrality of these “storehouses” of information.

Eley’s assertion is further substantiated by Innis’ claim:

‘[That] when civilisations control the dominant medium of communication, they importantly control how knowledge is obtained and disseminated’ (Cheney 2007).

Authorities such as historians and scholars in their research will thus be faced with the challenge of determining the reliability of information contained within archives. Robert submits that in order to combat this problem, it is of necessity that one questions how the archive was constituted as well as endeavour to determine what the archive leaves out and why (2012, p. 2).

Thus, archives constitute a two-edged sword; whilst they have the ability to preserve the “social memory” they also have the potential to contain bias. The bias will ultimately arise due to factors such as the creators of the archives themselves and/or the assertion of power by the dominant hegemony.

Archives, the “Monopoly of Knowledge” & Humanism

‘Literature and other fields of scholarship have become feudalised in a modern manorial system’ (Innis 2007, p. 188).


Like the feudal system, the hierarchical structure within society today, wherein there is a lower and upper class greatly affects the ability of a person to access archived content.

Innis’ theory on dominant media forms establishes that society becomes polarised where “monopolies of knowledge” exist as they ‘encourage the centralisation of power’ (Carey 1969).  Consequently, the bourgeoisie and the affluent exert a greater degree of power, thus to an extent they enjoy unhindered access to archived information. Contrastingly, the lower class are prevented from accessing archived content as they hold little power.

The uneven distribution of power within society results in authorities such as governments producing content, which is inherently biased. Institutions and leaders who control the dominant media platforms within a society, to an extent ‘control reality,’ as they hold a position of power whereby they can define what knowledge is legitimate (Soules 1996).

By defining what knowledge is legitimate, key societal actors are afforded the opportunity to exert authority in a manner that allows them to control the dominant media and the means by which information is collected and later archived. This is exemplified by the filtering (or censoring) system in place in nations such as China. The filtering system in China “defines what knowledge is legitimate” as it limits Chinese Internet users from accessing certain web-archived content (i.e. users are limited to accessing only domestic sources, or sources which have been screened by officials).

Archives & the Real Time Web

The “real-time web” refers to the ability of technologies to automatically receive information at the time in which it is published and simultaneously archived, without the user having to check the source for updates (Leggetter 2011). An example of this includes the instance of an iPhone alerting its user that someone has posted a status on their Facebook wall.

According to the blog Archive Fever: A Love Letter to the Post Real-Time web:

‘The real-time web might just be the most elaborate and widely adopted architecture for self-archival ever created’ (Ogle 2010).

This ideology is crystallised by Ogle’s statement that members of society have become “accidental archivists”. Consequently, the preservation of past and present dominant media forms is no longer left to institutions such as governments and museums. Instead, these institutions are being taken over by a plethora of mass-archiving platforms such as Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress and most notably Google- which arguably takes on the role of mother-archive.

De Landa’s ANPS (A New Philosophy of Society) theory, when applied to the “real-time web” highlights the role of assemblages within the ever-expansive network that is the Internet (2006). De Landa purports that in many assemblages there is a key actant, which results in other actants becoming subordinate to this key actant. Applying this theory to the assemblage of the “real-time web” it may be disseminated that Google is a key actant. Subsequently, the links to websites in which the search engine produces would constitute the subordinate actants.

Innisian analysis suggests that society should be wary of a mediums “monopoly potential”. Whilst real-time web based archives are preserved and saved in an open-terrain, the “real-time web” has the potential to increase the power of some actors at the expense of others. This is exemplified by Castells whom suggests that the “real-time web” is disproportionately populated by the more affluent (2001, p. 249).

In order to shift away from the centralisation of power and create an equilibrium, wherein the same amount of authority is asserted by each individual a balance must be struck between time and space biased dimensions. By creating a balance within the “Bias of Communications” this will ensure that people can live free from manipulation, upheaval and encroachments of the power of monopoly and dogma (Noble 1999, pp. 31-45).

Furthermore, Innis’ theory falls short in relation to the “monopoly of knowledge” that is the “real time web”. Whilst Innis elucidates that “monopolies of knowledge” encourage the centralisation of power he restricts his argument as he limits his analysis to the binary opposition of time and space biased media. Consequently, Innis fails to recognise that the separation of knowledge from a monopoly results in a shift in power from, in most cases the state or ruling elite, to what is termed as “The Commons”.

“The Commons” refers to resources, which are collectively owned and shared by society (Bollier 2002). Arguably, it is untrue that the “real-time web” is a public common. Whilst many members of society enjoy access to the mass archival tool, which is the Internet, it is in fact a hybrid common. Some enjoy unlimited access, whereas others pay service providers for access due to privatisation.

“Monopolies of Knowledge” & the Destruction of Creative Thought

Arguably, Innis’ statement that new “monopolies of knowledge” destroy the conditions important for creative thought is categorically incorrect.  Archives, particularly those accessible via the “real-time web”, exert creative thought through the questioning of past events during the present time.  This is explicated by the highly controversial website known as Wikileaks. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange states, ‘the only way we can know if information is legitimately kept secret is when it is revealed’ (Nouveau 2011).  Consequently, Wikileaks aims to question past and current abuses of power in order to promote freedom of speech and improve ‘our common historical record’ (Wikileaks 2012). Thus, the improvement of our “common historical record” will involve a breaking down of the fourth wall and dispersing power and knowledge to members of society. Through the breaking down of the fourth wall this will in turn potentially remove the bias that archives may hold.

The Future of the Real-Time Web

Despite the “real-time web” being the most revolutionary archive (“monopoly of knowledge”) to date, it will most likely ‘settle into a monopolistic economic pattern’ over time (Frost 2003).

The question as to what will lead to the displacement or possible obsolescence of the “real-time web” is a question for the future. However, Pelton suggests that it is not unlikely that communication mediums in the future will bypass humans altogether and instead create an exchange of information from ‘machine to machine’ (1990, pp. 90-92). Hence, there is the potential for the “monopoly of knowledge” to pass out of human hands completely as a result of the ever-expansive flow of information (Frost 2003).


All in all, dominant media forms create “monopolies of knowledge”. It is these dominant media forms that in turn create Archives. Archives are important as they preserve the social memory and create a storehouse of retrievable information. As such archives are what Ogle terms ‘an essential tool for remembering’ (2010). They can assist historians, governments, scholars and the like. However, archives can also challenge these authorities due to the bias that may be stored within their contents. Nevertheless, analysis reveals that archives, particularly “real-time web” based archives, are inherently important in our day-to-day lives.

Word count: 2030


Bollier, D 2002, ‘Reclaiming the Commons’,  Boston Review, Summer, accessed 28 May 2012, <>.

Carey, J 1969, ‘Harold Adams Innis & Marshall McLuhan’ in Phelan, J, Communication Control: Readings in the Motives and Structures of Censorship, Sheed and Ward, New York.

Castells, M 2001, The Internet Galaxy, Oxford University Press, New York.

Cheney, M 2007, The Monopoly of Knowledge: Understanding Harold Innis and the Archives of Harold Innis, Library & Archives Canada, accessed 27 May 2012, <>.

De Landa, M 2006, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory & Social Complexity, Ashford Colour Press Ltd, Hampshire.

Derrida, J 1996, Archive Fever: A Freudian ImpressionChicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eley, G 2005, A Crooked Line From Cultural History to the History of Society, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Frost, C 2003, ‘How Prometheus is Bound: Applying the Innis Method of Communications Analysis to the Internet’, Canadian Journal of Communication, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 9-24.

Innis, H 1949, The Press: A neglected factor in the economic history of the twentieth century, Oxford University Press, London.  

Innis, H 1951, The Bias of Communication, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Innis, H 2007, Empire & Communications, Introduction by Alexander John Watson, Dundurn Press Limited, Canada.

Leggetter, P 2011, Real-Time Web or Right-Time Web?,, accessed 25 March 2012, <>.

Library & archives Canada (2007), Innis Monopolies of Knowledge, Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis & McLuhan, accessed 27 May 2012, <>.

Marvin, C 1983, Space, Time and Captive Communications History, Praeger, New York.

Noble, R 1999, ‘Innis’ conception of freedom’, in Charles, R & William J Buxton (Eds.), Innis in the new century, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal.

Nouveau, T 2011, ‘Is Wikileaks more accountable than democracy?’, TG Daily via The Guardian, 11 April 2011, accessed 2 June 2012,<>.

Ogle, M 2010, Archive Fever: A love letter to the post real-time web,, accessed 24 March 2012, <>.

Pelton, J 1990, ‘Coping with telepower’, in Sven B Lundsten (Ed.), Telecommunications, values and the public interest, Albex Publishing Corporation, Norwood.

Soules, M 1996, Harold Adams Innis: The Bias of Communications & Monopolies of Power, accessed 28 May 2012, <>.

Stokes, Jon (2003) Reading Notes: Archive Fever, Ars Technica, accessed 24 March 2012, <>.

UNESCO Conference 36th Session Paris 26 October 2011, accessed 25 March 2012, <>.

UNESCO Office in Dakar, UNESCO adopt universal declaration on archives, 16 November 2011, accessed 25 March 2012, <>.

Watson, AJ 2006, Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Wikileaks 2012, About: What is Wikileaks?, accessed 2 June 2012, <>.

Tagged , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: