The Proverbs of St. McLuhan, Presented by Kevin Kelly


Marshall McLuhan famously dictated much of his “writings” — his literacy began in orality — an irony that was part of his message about the new media. He would lie on a couch in his office and channel some oracle from the future while his students scribbled down his announcements. For this reason, no one really needs to read McLuhan [Disagreed. Reading him is the only way to really understand him, although watching videos of his lectures and interviews is almost equally insightful.]. Much better to hear his quotes second hand or just scan his blurbs and proverbs.


McLuhan was very religious, his variety being Catholic. He was almost priestly in an old way, like the prophesying priests of Delphi. It was in reference to his cosmic faith that at the launch of Wired magazine, I anointed him Wired’s Patron Saint in the masthead. In that same spirit I present these highlights from a few of his lesser known books as proverbs from St. McLuhan. [Obviously, Kevin Kelly has read them all, thereby undermining the facetious claim that nobody needs to read McLuhan.]

Highlights from Understanding Media

  • Man the food-gatherer reappears incongruously as information-gatherer. In this role, electronic man is no less a nomad than his paleolithic ancestors.
  • Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.
  • It is a principal aspect of the electric age that it establishes a global network that has much of the character of our central nervous system.
  • Electric speed mingles the cultures of prehistory with the dregs of industrial marketeers, the nonliterate with the semiliterate and the postliterate. Mental breakdown of varying degrees is the very common result.
  • The American stake in literacy as a technology or uniformity applied to every level of education, government, industry, and social life is totally threatened by the electric technology.
  • Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.
  • In this electric age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.
  • By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies — including cities — will be translated into information systems.
  • Under electric technology the entire business of man becomes learning and knowing…and all forms of wealth result from the movement of information.
  • Each new technology turns its predecessor into an art form.
  • Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world…enabling it to evolve ever new forms.
  • Except for light, all other media come in pairs, with one acting as the “content” of the other, obscuring the operation of both.
  • Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of meditation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide.
  • The problem of discovering occupations or employment may prove as difficult as wealth is easy.
  • Might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?
  • The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute a huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics.
  • What would happen if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one’s psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties?
  • Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.
  • The implosion of electric energy in our century cannot be met by explosion or expansion, but it can be met by decentralism and the flexibility of multiple small centers.
  • Computers hold out the promise…to bypass languages in favor of general cosmic consciousness.
  • Electric speeds create centers everywhere…This is the new world of the global village.
  • Today the acceleration tends to be total, and thus ends space as the main factor in social arrangements.
  • War is never anything less than accelerated technological change.
  • Now that man has extended his central nervous system by electric technology, the field of battle has shifted to mental image making and breaking, both in war and in business.
  • Print gave to men the concept of indefinite repetition so necessary to the mathematical concept of infinity. The same Gutenberg fact of uniform, continuous, and indefinitely repeatable bits inspired also the related concept of the infinitesimal calculus.
  • “Money talks” because money is a metaphor.
  • The clock dragged man out of the world of seasonal rhythms and recurrence, as effectively as the alphabet had released him from the magical resonance of the spoken word and the tribal trap.
  • Primitive man lived in a much more tyrannical cosmic machine than Western literate man has ever invented.
  • The world of the ear is more embracing and inclusive than that of the eye can ever be.
  • The book was the first teaching machine and also the first mass-produced commodity.
  • Ads are news. What is wrong with them is that they are always good news. In order to balance off the effect and to sell good news, it is necessary for newspapers and television to have a lot of bad news.
  • The social practices of one generation tend to get codified into the “game” of the next.
  • There is a desperate need for games in a highly specialized industrial culture, since they are the only forms of art accessible to many minds.
  • Electricity is only incidentally visual and auditory; it is primarily tactile.
  • The “human interest” dimension is simply that of immediacy of participation in the experience of others that occurs with instant information.
  • The telephone is a participant form that demands a partner. Any literate man resents such a heavy demand for his total attention, because he has long been accustomed to fragmentary attention.
  • The telephone: speech without walls. The phonograph: music hall without walls. The photograph: museum without walls. The electric light: space without walls. The movie, radio, and TV: classroom without walls.
  • Just as we now try to control atom-bomb fallout, so we will one day try to control media fallout. Education will become recognized as civil defense against media fallout.
  • With TV the viewer is the screen.
  • Electric persuasion by photo and movie and TV works by dunking entire populations in new imagery.
  • With instant electric technology, the globe itself can never again be more than a village.
  • The future of work consists of learning a living.

Highlights from Culture is Our Business

  • Privacy invasion is now one of our biggest knowledge industries.
  • The great corporations are new tribal families.

From Gutenberg Galaxy

  • Instead of tending toward a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain.
  • As our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside.
  • Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.

Source: The Technium


Kevin Kelly in March 2016.


Kevin Kelly is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine. He co-founded Wired in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor for its first seven years. His new book for Viking/Penguin is called The Inevitable, with a publication date of June 6, 2016. He is also founding editor and co-publisher of the popular Cool Tools website, which has been reviewing tools daily since 2003. From 1984-1990 Kelly was publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Review, a journal of unorthodox technical news. He co-founded the ongoing Hackers’ Conference, and was involved with the launch of the WELL, a pioneering online service started in 1985. His books include the best-selling New Rules for the New Economythe classic book on decentralized emergent systems, Out of Control, a graphic novel about robots and angels, The Silver Cord, an oversize catalog of the best of Cool Tools, and his summary theory of technology in What Technology Wants (2010).

A longer Bio is available here

7 Responses to “The Proverbs of St. McLuhan, Presented by Kevin Kelly”

  1. 1 Michael

    as andrew mcluhan says
    “Only someone who hadn’t read much of his work could claim that his writing began in orality. The man was an English prof.

    Also, the highlights of UM would need to include, on the first page of the first chapter mind you, ‘the medium is the message’. That was kind of a big one.

    or Nick Carr
    …” But I’m not sure about “his lesser known books.” Isn’t Understanding Media his best known book?”

    • I certainly agree with Carr that Kelly is way off the mark in writing that UM is “lesser known”. I consider it to be the most important book written about media in the second half of the 20th century.

  2. Dear Alex,

    With your gentle permission, could I translate McLuhan’s proverbs in Georgian for my translating blog:

    It would be useful for our society too.
    With best regards from Georgia.

    Konstantin Vekua

  3. P.S. Obviously, as a rule on my blog, the source will be indicated in the end of translation.

  4. I’m sorry, but I can’t give you that permission because that page has been republished from Kevin Kelly’s The Technium website, as indicated by the source URL at the bottom of the article: Source: The Technium . Only the original author can give you that permission. Please contact him. Thank you……..Alex

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