The 3 Eras of Communication According to McLuhan & Innis

The important first era of communication – orality – is not depicted above and it would be erroneous to think of the inventors of writing, known as cuneiform, living in ancient Sumer around 3200 BC (where modern day southern Iraq now stands), as cavemen (see ).
The following excerpt is from from Logan, R.K. (2000). The Sixth Language: Learning a Living in the Internet Age. Toronto: Stoddart, pp. 14-60. It provides an overview of the Three Communication Eras: The Oral, Writing & Print, Electric & Electronic, according to Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis.
By Robert K. Logan, PhD
McLuhan, building on the ideas of Innis, divided human history into three distinct periods based on the modes of sensibilities their media made available to them. The first era, that of the oral tradition, stretches from the time humankind first acquired speech to the beginnings of literacy five thousand years ago. The second era, the age of literacy, includes the period from the invention of writing to the discovery of electricity and its use in the form of the telegraph. The age of writing is further subdivided into three periods, the first beginning with the advent of written symbols, the second with the invention of the phonetic alphabet, and the last with the invention of the printing press. The third communication era, that of the electric flow of information, covers the period from the first use of the telegraph in 1844 to the present. “We live today in the Age of Information and Communication because electric media instantly and constantly create a total field of interacting events in which all men participate” (McLuhan 1964, 248).

Innis also divided history into periods in which different modes of communication dominated. He divided the age of literacy, however, by the nature of the medium upon which texts were written. “We can conveniently divide the history of the West into the writing and the printing periods. In the writing period we can note the importance of various media such as the clay tablet of Mesopotamia, the papyrus roll in the Egyptian and in the Graeco-Roman world, parchment codex in the late Graeco-Roman world and the early Middle Ages, and paper after its introduction in the Western world from China” (Innis 1972, 7).

During each of these three major communication eras, socio-economic and cultural life were deeply affected by the dominant medium of communication. As each new mode of communication had an impact on society, it dominated those which had preceded it, not obsolescing them, but dramatically changing their character and the use to which they were put. Speech or the oral tradition naturally survived both literacy and electricity but its function changed. It retained its dominance for conversation and everyday communication; however, it was no longer used as the repository of a culture’s traditions as it had been in Homer’s time, nor the means of spreading news from one village or country to another. The wandering minstrel who had conveyed information across both space and time was replaced by the written record which spanned space through the courier and time through the library or archive. With writing, the spoken word took on new functions, sometimes becoming an art form in the guise of poetry and theatre.

Writing also underwent enormous changes with the advent of electricity. The modern newspaper, as McLuhan points out, is a product of the printing press and the telegraph. Electricity and the instantaneous flow of information changed the psychic environment of authors, causing them, in McLuhan’s words, to “live mythically and in depth” (McLuhan 1964, vii). As a consequence, writers became concerned with psychology, anthropology, and sociology. The psychological novel and stream-of-consciousness technique were born.

Electricity produced another unexpected flip that affected the spoken word, namely a revival of the oral tradition in the art, music, and literary world of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as exemplified by jazz and the use of African masks in Cubism. The structure of education also changed with the advent of each new mode of communication. With writing, education was transformed from the apprenticeship mode of learning on the job to formal schooling. The  alphabet, abstract science, formal logic, and codified law gave rise to the academies of higher learning that appeared in ancient Babylon, Egypt, and Greece. The printing press gave rise to the modern school system of mass education and the assembly-line style of mass production. The mass media of radio, television and telecommunications shrunk the world to the dimensions of a global village.

Neither Harold Innis or Marshall McLuhan lived long enough to see the two post-1980 revolutions of personal computing brought about by microcomputers or the World Wide Web made possible by the Internet. If they had had the opportunity to observe these two phenomena I believe they would have divided history in to four distinct eras rather than the three they chose. I believe, like me, they would have added a fourth era by making a distinction between the era of electric media of mass communication from the era of electronic media of mainframes, microcomputers and the Internet. While the dissemination of electronic information parallels in some ways that of electric information there is a very important difference. The users of electric media are merely passive consumers of information whereas the users of electronic media can interact actively with the information they access.


There is a rough equivalence in the 3 communication eras as defined by McLuhan-Logan, Walter Ong and Neil Postman, along with Gregory Ulmer’s tri-partite division of media competencies and Alvin Toffler’s 3 Waves of human development.




Oral Tradition

Primary Orality



1st Wave: Agricultural

Literacy Era




2nd Wave: Technological

Electric/Electronic Era Secondary Orality Technopoly Electracy

3rd Wave: Information Society

Ong, Walter J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York, Vintage.
Ulmer, G.L. (2003). Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. Longman.
Toffler, A. (1980). The Third Wave. New York: Bantam.
HISTORY OF COMMUNICATION: History of Communications - Through the ages and into the next century... | Communication and technology |

“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.” – Edward R. Murrow

4 Responses to “The 3 Eras of Communication According to McLuhan & Innis”

  1. 1 bw

    What do you think about the idea of the 4th era being the “software” era? Something I’ve been thinking about — captures a lot of the active/passive and can take us into virtual reality. Thanks.


  2. For an interesting parallel to these three stages see Gould’s discussion of the 3 eras of music quoted in my paper
    “Flip-Side Overlap”: The Medium is the Music

    Gould and McLuhan of course were very much in touch with each other.

    Fora fuller look see the paper, but briefly:

    McLuhan’s Orality Stage = Gould’s the pre-Renaissance age (where everyone is a performer-composer)
    McLuhan’s Gutenberg age of visuality = Gould’s the age of concert media (the composers, the performers, and the listeners are divided and ordered into a hierarchy; music as public spectacle)
    McLuhan’s electronic age of “retribalized” new “orality = Gould’s the electronic age (the end of concert; the domination of recording; the collapse of the musical hierarchy; music as environment; the appearance of high-participant listeners, the anonymity of art)


  1. 1 Revolutionary phase of Oral Culture to Literacy Culture – Mga Hinun-ánon

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