The Technological Society Critical Essays

Jacques Ellul


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1279 words.)