Patrick van Broeckhuijsen

How to escape the space bias


05 Apr 2021

Every empire has a bias either towards space or towards time. This bias is influenced by the most dominant medium, as Innis explains in “The Bias of Communication”.

Time-biased media includes clay or stones. They are durable yet tend to reach limited audiences. Space-biased media are more volatile. They include paper, electronic and digital communication. This form of media is capable of conveying information to many people over long distances but has short exposure times.

For an empire to last, a balance has to be reached between the spatial and temporal biases. If such a balance is not achieved, society is doomed to fall apart. Whether this will happen to our modern society depends on our ability to escape the space bias.

The time bias

In ancient Egypt, passing on information from generation to generation was based on carving messages and images into stone and building pyramids. This clearly qualifies as a bias towards time.

After the invention of the printed press, a monopoly of time followed by a monopoly of space.

This monopoly of communication based on the eye in terms of printing and photography caused the development of a competitive type of communication based on the ear. The printed press gave way in effectiveness to the radio and television. This enabled politicians to directly speak to the people. Both the radio and television proved to be far more effective for appealing to a large number of people. Also, illiteracy was no longer a serious barrier.

The problem of the internet

After Innis’s death, a new form of medium has gained popularity and changed our media landscape even further: the internet. The internet made information accessible from anywhere in the world at any time. Without the need to transport any hardware, like books, at all. It became easier than ever before to communicate so quickly and efficiently with anyone in the world.

Unlike traditional media like TV and radio which only enabled one-directional broadcasting of information, where a few producers send out their information to many passive consumers without any feedback. The internet offers a new way of exchanging information and clearly qualifies as a space-biased medium.

The internet both centralizes and decentralizes, destroys old communities, and creates new ones. The internet also helps people to transcend both space and time. Yet, the latter only through instantaneity, not durability.

Nowadays, most of the information that is consumed, is generated within the last week or even within the last twenty-four hours. Consuming information on the news and social media constructs a bias. Since most citizens of the internet never get to see or hear anything else.

Having access to information from anywhere in the world at any time, is no guarantee to know. Only people who are technologically literate enough can find what they need at any given point in time on the internet. However, if the information on the internet ceases to be accessible, the knowledge is irreversibly lost.

Read more books than you think you need to

The imbalance between time and space can be restored by studying history, Innis explains.

“Almost all kinds of useful knowledge would be learned through reading of history”, wrote Benjamin Franklin in the 1700s. Though, history can mean much more than the usual definition of it. History can contain everything that is meaningful and worthwhile like philosophy, mathematics, religion, law, chemistry, biology, physics and foreign languages.

Reading is important because it develops our thoughts, gives us endless knowledge and lessons while keeping our minds active, and above all empowers us to empathize with other people.

Barbara Tuchman described books as “the carriers of civilization”. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, and thought and speculation come to a standstill. Books are humanity in print. Previous generations already invented the wheel. Why would we invent it again? We walk on the knowledge of others.

Escape the space bias

Lin Yutang once said: “The man who has not the habit of reading is imprisoned in his immediate world, in respect to time and space. His life falls into a set routine and he sees only what happens in his immediate neighborhood. From this prison, there is no escape”.

Thus, escape the space bias by reading books, but not just any book. David Perell expanded on “Rules for reading”, in which he explained: “Time is like a filter for quality. Read books that have stood the test of time. Have a bias towards old, weird books”.

Don’t read all the books that everyone else is reading. Consume both information from a lot of different sources which were written anywhere between now and centuries ago, to escape the space bias. Otherwise, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

Reading old, weird books is like a conversation with the finest minds of the past. The book might carry you to a different country or a different century, and explain to you what other people already figured out centuries ago.

Though you might forget the vast majority of what you read, books that you read profoundly change your thinking.

Above all, humanity must stay adaptable enough to react to the ever fast changing media landscape. As Charles Darwin once said: “It is not the strongest of species that survive, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the most adaptable to change”.

Humanity must maintain the balance between time and space.

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