Communication Media and Time
Robbie Fordyce
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0242


The shift to electronic computing that began slowly in the late 20th century, and has only become more widespread since, was the core of a global media infrastructure. This agglomeration of technologies, devices, protocols, users, signals, networks, and cables has become the reference point for a contemporary idea of an economy of speed. The internet is ‘fast’ and ‘instantaneous,’ enabling ‘simultaneous’ communication that folds into a ‘24/7’ online culture that is always online. Speed is underwritten by a sense of permanence, both in the idea that metadata traces are left in indelible ink for corporate platforms to retain for their big data analytics in perpetuity, and the popular culture idiom that ‘once something is on the internet, it cannot be deleted.’ Data is far less permanent than any idiom would suggest. The internet’s capacity to send information instantaneously is not uniform. Indeed even the idea that it is simultaneous is a very anthropic perspective on the matter, given that individual computers may send data encapsulated in different protocols which themselves have different relationships to speed, order, and efficiency. The internet is presently the most visible and most prevalent of current media systems, and it has impacted the temporal character of our relationships with each other. Not only have humans used a range of media at different periods throughout history, we also presently use a wide variety of media that have different relationships to time, different relationships to the past. Accordingly, media have affected our own perceptions of time in different ways: from the workplace, to interpersonal communication, through shaping our perspective of history and culture, to reflecting on the possibility of what could have been, and creating mechanisms for us to preserve something of ourselves into the future. The study of media vis a vis time has its foundations in the works of a number of key scholars including from fields of study in philosophy, economics, and sociology of science. Key developments in the study of media tend to focus on how the temporal affordances of media rearrange aspects of the economy or of daily life, with a significant focus on how temporal media shape personal experiences of work and labor. The field of media archaeology has emerged relatively recently as a methodology for understanding the social location of media technology of the past, and has quickly developed an enthusiastic community with a rigorous research agenda. This entry broadly covers a number of key scholarly contributions to the study of time in the context of media.

Temporal Foundations in Media Studies

Time is a key differentiating attribute among media. The relationship that media have to time has been established throughout history, and formalized as a key component of media studies (as distinct from communication studies) since earliest stages of the discipline in the mid-20th century. Harold Innis, recognized as one of the first modern scholars of media, observed in Innis 1950 that media could be considered a civilization-shaping technology. Electronic media, McLuhan would later claim, was effectively neither timebound nor spacebound. As he suggests in McLuhan 1964, electronic technology has “extended” our central nervous system across the globe, effectively “abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned” (p. 3). Like much scholarship of the era, Innis, and later McLuhan, distinguished between primitives or tribals and moderns or Westerners as a meaningful categorization. As such, the arguments within the work of McLuhan and Innis, as with any other scholarship of similar language, should be read with appropriate caution regarding their distinctly colonial arguments and the strongly racist foundation to many examples used. This distinction between an idea of civilization and its other is common throughout McLuhan and Innis’ work. This is not surprising given their close working relationship, and this idea can be read as feeding into the development of their theories of media as indicators of different epochal shifts in humanity along a linear model of history. Innis 1950 is the first to embark on this trajectory, to be closely followed by Innis 1951, which includes passages on the way that media can become a device for managing social time. In the final piece of Innis’s oeuvre to be published in his lifetime, Innis 1952, Innis looks to the impacts of communication speed on both politics and on economic development. Where Innis focused media technologies from the ancient era through to print and radio, McLuhan focuses on the impact of electronic media, popular culture, and broadcast industries. McLuhan correlated nativist pastoral serenity with oral cultures, implying that there are purer forms of community that modern media have made impossible. McLuhan, in McLuhan 1964, looks to electronic media systems to establish a pace of communication that would allow humanity to return to this purity of oral culture at the level of the planet. In contrast to a refined grand theory of media, Raymond Williams—ever the successor to McLuhan, and keenly aware of a need to address the cultural and social dimensions of media—in Williams 1974 presents a study of television, and notes how political economic forces in production have been used to retain the attention of its audience through the concept of “flow.”

  • Innis, Harold. 1950. Empire and communications. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Innis proposes that media can be categorized into two categories: those that cross time, and those that cross space. Media that span space tend to be fleeting and low-energy: word-of-mouth can cover space quite quickly. Media that span time, however, tend to be durable. Stone tablets with etchings or frescos painted onto walls last millennia, allowing archaeologists to continue to uncover stories about human history. Innis’s protégé, the famous Marshall McLuhan, was to point to electronic media as the format that undermines—or at least challenges—Innis’s space/time dyad.

  • Innis, Harold. 1951. The bias of communication. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    Innis categorizes different forms of relationship to time by reference to the different communal measures that societies have held as common reference points. For instance, social time as a socially specific rhythm of behavior; linear time as a culturally specific epistemology of time; biological time as the rhythms of the nature of bodies. Innis charts the shift of authority over time from religious institutions to industrially managed forms of “clock time.”

  • Innis, Harold. 1952. Changing concepts of time. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    Innis argues that communication speed has a significant impact on social life. Innis points to the development of industrial printing as fostering changes in advertising, the rise of magazines, and the feasibility of state and corporate censorship, which he contrasts with the use of radio. Innis also notes that technological communications developments tend to increase the pace of communication, and those that can take advantage of this will tend to accumulate wealth and power in the form of economic monopolies.

  • McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

    McLuhan adds electronic media to Innis’s temporal mapping of media. McLuhan’s electronic media are predominantly networked, global, and popular. Electronic media would gather together the disparate populations of the earth into a constantly communicating global village; circadian rhythms that would distinguish territories by their day-night cycle would no longer apply. McLuhan‘s linear history epochalizes different eras as defined by forms of temporal relation: oral cultures “act and react” simultaneously, while Western cultures “repress” the various “feelings and emotions” to another time (p. 85–86).

  • Williams, Raymond. 1974. Television: Technology and cultural form. London: Fontana/Collins.

    Williams’s influence on media and time studies is not founded on ideas of a general or innate impact of media on time. Instead Williams addresses the reciprocal relationships between cultural production and media affordances. Williams’s key idea relevant for the study of time and media is the idea of “flow,” which is a concerted attempt by television producers to “hold on” to audiences from program to program. Williams presents this as a conscious attempt to occupy time in user’s lives.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.