Both Neil Postman’s and Harold Innis’s notions of bias are complementary rather than contradictory ideas. The main difference between their notions of bias is that Innis is more preoccupied with the technological form and structure of what is communicated while Postman’s concern is the content and relevance of what is communicated. Both those aspects as examined by the two intellectuals are integral to a better understanding of the wholeness of the notion of the bias of communication.
Bias from Postman’s perspective In his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” Neil Postman examines the origins of the issue of the bias of communication which began to be seriously discussed in the nineteenth century and was directly connected with the invention of telegraphy. Before this technological breakthrough in communication, the thinker holds, typography was a relatively appropriate, although slow, technology which had communicated relevant and organized information. Books, for example, conveyed their authors’ ideas and thoughts and contained information that was carefully collected, explained, or analyzed.
Their merits are, according to Postman, that they contribute to public discourse; readers can discuss their content; they can make judgments of relevant and important issues which may alter to some extent their lives, behavior, or plans (Postman, p. 69). The only positive advantage that telegraphy has over typography, Postman argues, is the speed with which it is capable of moving information. But this strength, he continues, also allows the massive communication of often useless and irrelevant information from distant places which is no longer selected according to the principle of quality and utility.
Much to Postman’s regret, the content of what became possible to communicate at a great speed is of no importance to people to whom it is addressed. In other words, the abundant information comes from nowhere and is communicated to no one, ignoring, thus, its content, and amplifying irrelevance and uselessness (Postman, p. 67). The irrelevance of information that telegraphy made abundant, as explained by Postman, is that it comes quickly and is then replaced even more quickly by more information.
And those to whom it is addressed have no time to evaluate it and make their judgments of its content, purpose, or possible usefulness. In this way, the content that such information provides is annihilated and it is the bias of the content of information communicated that Postman is particularly concerned with. Simply knowing a fact becomes more important than understanding why this fact occurred and what led to its occurrence. In this case, the quality of information is marginalized while its quantity becomes more essential (Postman, p. 70).
The bias of the content of information that is communicated was, Postman goes on, exacerbated by the graphic revolution that occurred in the nineteenth century, namely, by the invention of photography. In combination with telegraphy, photography is another medium that shapes our understanding of reality. It accompanies information that comes from nowhere and often relegates it to the background, particularly in advertisements. The negative result of this “partnership”, Postman says, is that for many Americans it is now enough just to see things in order to believe a fact, instead of reading about those things or reflecting on them.
For the photograph appeals to the senses of those that irrelevant information is addressed to and enhances the reality and importance of the information itself (Postman, p. 74). The bias, Postman also maintains, is that both photography and telegraphy make those to whom information is addressed believe that they learn something important and relevant; and also give them the illusion of meaningful reality. However, the bitter reality is that those people learn not what is really vital to their past, present, or future, but trivial things which in most cases are good for nothing (Postman, p. 5). Finally, telegraphy and photography were followed by other media of communication such as radio or television which only further amplified the biases of the previous technologies.
Television in particular has become a reliable teacher and friend for many people teaching them what reality is, how to live, what to buy, and so on. For Postman, it promotes nothing more than incoherence and triviality which became our culture, and transforms it into an arena for show business (Postman, p. 80). Bias from Innis’s perspective
Unlike Postman, Innis is mainly concerned with how information is communicated rather than the content it communicates. He studies how technological forms affect the content of information and society. He argues that the bias that each new technological form brings, influences the patterns of social relations and perception of individuals (Innis, p. 130). Innis points out to the fact that modern world is dominated by “space-biased mass communication systems” from which public dialogue is excluded.
And this leads to the monopolization of information when those who hold monopolies often determine what is knowledge and reality (Innis, p. 132). Here, like Postman, Innis examines the issue of biased knowledge. But if in Postman’s case the bias comes from distorted content of information, Innis’s interest is the monopoly of knowledge as the source of the bias. Innis also examines the effects of monopolies of knowledge and the resulting bias of communication. Monopolies, he argues, lead to the division into those who possess “genuine knowledge” and others who are passive consumers of it.
And it is the former who decide how much of genuine knowledge can be disseminated and tend to do it in a centralize way. A good example that Innis provides is an example of the “scientific world view” which has dominated our way of viewing the world for the last two centuries or so. Other methods of viewing the world, such as, for instance, the artistic or the spiritual, have been regarded as wrong and irrelevant, which is the bias in itself (Innis, 133). Another bias that comes from monopolies of knowledge is that those who hold those monopolies have the power to determine for others what reality is.
The basic idea here is that human understanding of reality depends to a large extent on how they talk about it, that is, the world, the events, the facts, and so on. And it is not surprising that those who control knowledge select the information based on their purposes and then present it as genuine knowledge and reality, but which, instead, is often biased and distorted (Innis, p. 133). Like Postman, Innis points out that radio and particularly television contribute to the construction of a biased sense of reality since they present information more vividly and convincingly than written media.
But if Postman considers their effects in terms of entertainment which promotes triviality and does not address the real problems of individuals, Innis examines the possible use of electronic media of communication on a larger, namely, political scale than mere commerce and advertisements (Innis, p. 134). Conclusion As it can be seen from the discussion above, both Postman’s and Innis’s notions of bias are rather different aspects of the same issue and are, thus, complimentary.
Postman depicts how technological advances, arriving one after the other, have brought bias and distorted reality. The bias is that new technologies have turned the issue of information upside down as before their arrival people collected and used information to manage the contexts of their lives while now they have to invent those contexts to make useless information appear useful. Innis seems more preoccupied with the form of those technologies and the way they affect society as a whole.