Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Jacques Ellul's Technique

I have always been interested in the structures of thought that pattern he way we think.  I do not mean in a medical sense, but in a sociological one.  I'm referring to the belief systems, usually taken for granted and very often secular in nature, that influence large groups of people but have their fundamental origin on how successfully they affect individuals.  They can also be referred to as the mythical substructure of a society, and despite the belief that we have left this seemingly outdated mode of thinking behind, myth continues to abound.  Roland Barthe's Mythologies is perhaps the clearest statement that myth is still a driving force in society, but it is surely not alone.  Other works have done admirable jobs at unveiling how much of what we think is not spontaneously generated but instead finely formed by forces that we don't have control of.  Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media and Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion are great examples of works that reveal these forces.  I can now add another to that list.

Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society (1964) fits with these type of books as the primary focus is to reveal the consequences of our technological drives and to provide a counterweight to the benign face we casually put on technique and technology.  Rather than seeing technology as something wielded by humans, he sees it develop along deterministic lines that drag people and societies along with it, with a distinct lack of control.  It is critical to constantly remember, and Ellul takes great care to stress this, that he uses the term technological in the broadest sense.  It includes not only the mechanical and electronic sense we generally associate it with today, but primarily as technique in general.  It essentially means the relentless drive to find efficiencies and add structure and processes where none existed before, both in the material world and in human institutions and organizations.  Our modern gadgets are not the essence of the technological society, but a consequence.

To start to explain his ideas is no easy task.  While the language (at least in the English translation) is straightforward, the difficulty of the work comes from the density.  It is page after page or relentless examples, illustrating the effects of technique on various areas, and the effects that it has had on the minute aspects within the larger categories.  Ellul's book is broken into broad sections: chapters one and two speak of the nature of technique; chapter three is about technique and the economy; chapter four deals with technique and the state. In each chapter the subject is broken into minute portions, thoroughly examined, until Ellul has made his point that, even in areas where it seems technique has no influence, it has actually become the dominant force.

Ellul sees the technical society as one of technically generated illusions and myth, which is his fundamental concern with it.  He writes of "the illusion of liberty, choice, and individuality [that appear] merely as appearances," and where society reaches a point where for an individual "the appearance of a personal life becomes for him the reality of a personal life."

The penultimate chapter of the book is titled Human Techniques and deals with the various means with which the struggle against technical domination is being waged.  However, this chapter opens with a paradox, which is best stated by Ellul himself: "we must find solutions to the problems raised by techniques, and only through technical means can we find them."  He writes that human techniques are gear toward the adaptation of a person to their total environment, and that it is only the adapted person who is happy.  While Ellul has been accused of pessimism, this is not the start of an optimistic section of the book despite the opening pages.  He is highly critical of the aspects he writes of and in the end never proposes any satisfying solutions.

Ellul provides a framework by which to reassess many contemporary issues.  Rather than the final word,  his understanding of technique provides another method (or human technique) to reveal the underlying causes of social and political phenomenon.  I feel to suggest that a single force is the cause of any one event is oversimplification and that it is the interrelation of multiple forces that leads to true understanding.  Ellul, if he is correct, and he makes a convincing case, has done an admirable job of revealing the characteristics of one of these forces.  He has added to our ability to demythologize the world around up by asking questions that further unveil the social phenomena that surround us.

I fear that this book, like many other important works, is destined to be forgotten.  I came by my copy through a hand-me-down of a university friend who had to buy it for a class and it has waited patiently for me over the years before I brought myself to read it.  I had never encountered this book or author before and I have only seen references to him on a few occasions since.  My schoolmates required reading was the first chapter, only a sliver of the work.  A new publication that I stumbled upon in my local bookstore, What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly deals with technology in a narrower sense than Ellul speaks to, but what stood out to me was the underlying belief that humans were ultimately in full control of technology and exert their will on and with it.  I browsed the book but looked closely at the references, suggested readings and index.  There was not a single mention of Ellul.  After reading the book I fail to see how the subject can even be spoken of without taking into consideration his arguments.

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