Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1279
Ellul’s main purpose is to explain the role technique has assumed in the contemporary world and to call attention to the need to bring it under control. He begins with an explanation of technique’s origins and characteristics.
According to Ellul, technique arose in the eighteenth century as a consequence of five interrelated causes. First, it resulted from the fruition of a long history of technological experience. Every invention after about 1750 had necessary antecedents which had increased the momentum of technological discovery to the point where both quantitative and qualitative breakthroughs could occur. Second, population expansion fostered needs which could not be satisfied except by technical development. Population growth created not only the necessary market for technique but also the requisite human material. Third, the economic environment combined two seemingly contradictory traits: It was stable and yet in flux. Stability permitted research on well-defined problems, and flux permitted technical inventions to be quickly adopted. Fourth, the social milieu was sufficiently flexible to permit technological innovation. Two traditional restraints, social taboos and inflexible social structures, broke down. The traditional values that had caused earlier technological innovations to be carefully scrutinized before adoption lost their hold, and the breakup of traditional social groups led to migration to cities, where individuals were isolated and subjected to the power of technique. Finally, a clear technological intention, sponsored by special interests, particularly the bourgeoisie, appeared. Ellul believes that the 1750’s “adherence of the whole of society to a conspicuous technical objective” had occurred. All five of these factors occurred simultaneously, resulting in the emergence of technique.
Ellul lists eight characteristics of technique. Two of these, he says, are obvious. First is its rationality. It brings mechanics to bear on all that is spontaneous and irrational and reduces them to the “scheme of logic.” Second, technique creates artificiality. It destroys, absorbs, or subordinates the natural world and will not permit its restoration. Third, technique is self-directing. It is guided by the single criterion of efficiency. Technique seeks the “one best way”; if a better technological means exists, it will be used. Human choice has therefore little to do with technique. Fourth, technique is self-augmenting, in that it proceeds without decisive intervention by individual humans. Its growth is automatic and irreversible, developing according to laws of geometric progression. In its development, technique poses primarily technical problems that consequently can be solved only by technology. The result is a situation of self-reinforcing cycles. Technique thus assumes its own momentum and direction. Fifth, technique implies monism. That is, the technological phenomenon forms a whole and is unitary. The good uses of technique cannot be dissociated from the bad, nor the useful from the destructive. According to Ellul, phenomena as diverse as the organization of an office and the construction of an aircraft have certain identical features. Once the technical orientation has been adopted, it brings into existence all aspects of technique. It is impossible to accept some and reject others. Sixth, techniques become linked together; all require one another. So, for example, economic techniques require political techniques, which in turn require propaganda. Seventh, technique is universal; all peoples follow the same technological road. They are distinguished only by their relative places on the technological trajectory. Technological invasion crushes the independence of traditional civilizations. Finally, technique is autonomous and the prime mover of every other aspect of society. It is a closed system. It determines the conditions of social, political, and economic change. It is not guided by imperatives developed independently of it.
The result of technique’s enormous influence is the inexorable loss of human freedom, according to Ellul. The ultimate technical accomplishment comes when people are manipulated into believing that they want to do what the state demands of them. The success of political propaganda in all societies, whether liberal-democratic or Marxist, reflects the fact that technique’s domination has little to do with different political ideologies. Neither Marxist nor capitalist societies question the doctrine of progress through technique.
Perhaps the key concept in The Technological Society is that technique is autonomous, that it moves ahead with an inner direction and a force of its own making. Ellul contends that this autonomy has several causes. First, as new technologies emerge, they create problems which require more technology for their solution. A classic example is the automobile, which as it is perfected requires successive technological improvements in roads, social controls, and laws. Second, when certain technologies are created, they require others for their effective utilization. Mass production, for example, requires the assembly of parts and materials from a variety of locations, which demands improvements in communication and transportation techniques. Third, when a technological apparatus is assembled, it builds its own momentum because of the commitment of personnel and material. The combination of vast human and natural resources virtually assures that technique will continue to develop without direction by individual humans. In the end, national policies are shaped to a large extent by technological-industrial complexes.
The individual thus loses freedom of choice. Trained with a narrow focus on instrumentalities with little or no attention to cost-benefit analysis of the end results, the technicians are unable to see that technique is in fact controlling them. The result, to Ellul, is clear: “True technique will know how to maintain the illusion of liberty, choice, and individuality; but these . . . will be mathematically integrated into the mathematical reality merely as appearances! . . . The individual will no longer be able, materially or spiritually, to disengage himself from society.” The individual cannot escape technique’s domination.
Critics of Ellul’s vision of technique have argued that he is unnecessarily negative and pessimistic and that he idolizes a nontechnical past that never really existed. They contend that while it is difficult to gainsay Ellul’s realism about technique, since modern weapons and environmental problems are dangerous and pressing, he does not sufficiently recognize that technique has enhanced the lives of most ordinary people. In their view, technique has freed humanity from the conditions of hardship, starvation, and superstition that dominated history. To argue that technique has done nothing for humanity is patently absurd. Not every aspect of industrialization is necessarily enslaving and idol-producing. Ellul’s critics also argue that he implicitly assumes that things were better in the past. This idealization of a romanticized, pretechnical past leads to a serious misinterpretation of history.
Despite these criticisms, however, most evaluations of Ellul’s work are favorable. Even those who do not share his fundamental premises agree that he has identified the central thrust of modern history and that his analysis must be taken seriously. Ellul himself stated the purpose of his books clearly: He wants to provoke a reaction of personal reflection and thus force readers to choose to do something. This aim explains the character of his writing: It is forceful, dialectical, and full of assertions sometimes unsupported by thorough factual analysis. He attempts not so much to explain as to argue, to convince others of what he believes to be true. He wants to force the reader to grasp the ironic contradictions of a society dominated by technique, and follow them through to their ultimate resolutions.
In describing things as they are and are likely to become, he appears to assume inevitability. In fact, his writings, taken as a whole, indicate that he believes that man has the ability to change technique and alter the ultimate course of social evolution. The Technological Society seeks to warn people of what is likely to happen so that they will take charge of their history rather than be carried away by events. He hopes that subsequent events will prove him wrong, but he fears that he is correct.