Republishing Harold Innis and exploring technological fetishism

Edward ComorFIMS Professor Edward Comor’s most recent project is his work co-editing Harold Innis’ book Political Economy in the Modern State with Professor Robert E. Babe. The book is the only work by the communication theorist that hasn’t been re-published since it came out in 1946.

“It's been as long and sometimes difficult process as it involves a tremendous amount of specificity and care,” says Comor of his and Babe’s work on Innis’ book. “There's a great deal at stake as the book's republication and reinterpretation is a significant responsibility. It’s also been a labour of love as Innis' work is far more nuanced and prescient than most recognize. Fascinating and important work.”

In other research, in a survey of more than 300 Canadian journalists, conducted by Comor and another FIMS professor, James Compton, respondents were asked to describe how digital technology is influencing their work. The professors analyzed the responses in an article titled “Journalist Labour and Technological Fetishism” (in the journal The Political Economy of Communication) in 2015. Comor and Compton write that the descriptions given by the journalists express an implicit or explicit understanding of technology as a force or agent in journalistic labour. The pair state that technologies often are talked about and treated as if they are inherently powerful – a way of thinking related to what is called technological fetishism. 

“Most of the respondents think and act as if these technologies are compelling the changes they are lamenting when, in fact, the core dynamic at work are corporate demands to get more for less out of their investments, their workers and their consumers,” Comor says. “Some of the journalists recognize this, of course, but nevertheless are compelled, with good reason I might add, to think and act as if such technologies really are changing the landscape of their craft.”

Comor also analyzes American foreign policy through the lens of technological fetishism.

“In the case of U.S. foreign policy, developments such as America’s promotion of ‘Internet freedom’ around the world, although full of contradictions and power assertions, is being pursued as if the Internet will itself yield a more liberal and moderate world order. In part, the technological fetish is a kind of soothing mechanism as it allows policy officials to cope with a world that they’re finding to be increasingly uncontrollable, paradoxically some 25 years after the end of the Cold War.”

Comor’s research into the role of the Internet and digital technology has identified some previously ignored or neglected implications for foreign policy decision making. He says, in the short term, technological fixes or mythologies often mollify problems; but in the long term, the problems’ underpinnings still exist and, arguably, are perpetuated through technology’s applications.

“This is a rather abstract contradiction that entails some amount of reflexive and historical thinking which is the kind of thinking that is in short supply, especially among policy officials working on mostly specific issues and within ‘we-must-have-a-clear-strategy-that-is-measurable’ structural conditions,” says Comor. “After all, if a policy problem isn’t readily quantifiable/measurable, not only is it largely ignored but, even if it is recognized, the technology-mediated solutions that are applied are hardly capable of redressing the complex dynamics that are behind the problem to begin with.”

Some of Comor’s research has been supported by a SSHRC Partnership Development grant the FIMS Digital Labour Group received several years ago. Comor says the funding gave him the resources needed to co-conduct the survey of Canadian journalists. That, in turn, “opened my mind to the importance of technological fetishism in a range of contemporary developments and, indirectly, it reaffirmed the significance of Innis’ theory of history generally and his dialectical materialist analysis of the role of media more specifically.”