(To be published in James Carey: A Conversation, Eve Munson and Catherine Warren, eds. (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota)

Famed Psychic's Head Explodes:
James Carey on the Technology of Journalism
by Carolyn Marvin
Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania


How communications technologies structure ways of thinking and feeling is a lifelong concern of James Carey's work. Along the way, he has acknowledged a debt to Harold Innis, the economic historian for whom differences in message transportability among media make all the social and cultural difference in the world. When Carey began his career as a media analyst, he entered a field in which the staple devices for examing media in society were biographies of media figures and histories of media organizations. Innis's work was different. He offered a powerful analytic framework that connected changes in the history of transportation and communications technology to dramatic changes in social structure. Carey's own distinctive development of these ideas has deeply influenced the terms of media analysis by scholars in the field.

To explore that thinking, we must understand a little about the Innisian concepts at its roots. For Innis, media in which the message does not change much over time are time-binding. They are preservers of culture, and their mode is memory. Such media are exemplified in architecture, stone, and especially religious tradition mediated through oral communication, the communication of one body directly with another. The messages of time-binding media are unstable over space. They become distorted if they travel any distance. Tradition is an excellent example since the habitual customs and gestures of a community are difficult to maintain at a distance. Removed from the communities and generations of believers that have nurtured them, they are easily misinterpreted.

In space-binding media, messages are not distorted much across distance, but cannot last long. They are extenders of culture, and their mode is power. Print and broadcast journalism are space-binding media that combine the easy transportability of paper with rapid electronic distribution by telephone, video and computer. Contemporary journalism is time-shortened and ephemeral. Unlike media crafted from messages painstakingly sedimented across centuries, like the Iliad or the Odyssey, contemporary media saturate the moment. They fill up every nook and cranny of public space. Wherever time-binding and space-binding technologies flourish together, powerful political states emerge, long- lasting and broadly extended across territory. The maintenance of political units as small as tribes and as large as empires depend on media.
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