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Jacques Ellul and the Technocratic Society

Unhappy is the society dominated by "technique"

Jacques Ellul was a twentieth-century writer and philosopher who left us an abundance of riches on the impact of technology on our modern world, or what he called the “technological society.”

I’ve been working through his book The Technological Society for a while now. It’s dense, slow reading, but is jam packed with insights. Aside from merely the proliferation and growth of technology in the West over the last century, Ellul notes that we’ve become a culture obsessed with “technique,” performing tasks for efficiency instead of intrinsic purpose, and training ourselves to relate to other people in like manner. What matters under technique’s domination is not morals or human dignity but about outcome and “results,” being bigger, better, and faster. We become technological “magicians,” developing more and more powerful technology only to become increasingly subjugated to it.

Even more than that, Ellul thought that a society steeped in technique would inevitably yield to a totalitarian state. As a man who personally witnessed the rise of the Soviet Union and its ensuing surveillance state, he probably didn’t use that term too loosely. For him it would have had tremendous personal meaning. He writes,

Technique causes the state to become totalitarian, to absorb the citizens’ life completely. We have noted that this occurs as a result of the accumulation of techniques in the hands of the state. Techniques are mutually engendered and hence interconnected, forming a system that tightly encloses all our activities. When the state takes hold of a single thread of this network of techniques, little by little it draws to itself all the matter and the method, whether or not consciously wills do to do so (p. 284).

-Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society

I won’t pretend to understand the extent to what Ellul means by this, but today, with widespread use of digital technology and especially social media, it’s hard to argue against the fact that we are easily influenced. And when the federal government influences social media companies like Twitter or Facebook to censor the political perspectives they don’t like, then Ellul’s commentary hits pretty close to home.

The 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma additionally revealed how Big Tech companies make their products subtly addictive, and how constant exposure to online interpretations of the world can easily distort our perceptions of reality. To make a long story short, we are more vulnerable to online claptrap than we might think.

In the book’s introduction, Robert K. Merton of Columbia University writes,

In Ellul’s conception, then, life is not happy in a civilization dominated by technique. Even the outward show of happiness is bought at the price of total acquiescence. The technological society requires men to be content with what they are required to like; for those who are not content, it provides distractions–escape into absorption with technically dominated media of popular culture and communication. And the process is a natural one: every part of a technical civilization responds to the social needs generated by technique itself. Progress then consists in progressive de-humanization–a busy, pointless, and, in the end, suicidal submission to technique.

Busy, pointless, and dehumanized. It reminds me of the lecture from philosopher of technology Brandon Rickabaugh that I covered just a couple weeks ago. In his estimation, we are living under the haunts of materialistic presumptions about the world, in which human beings are no more than mechanical parts, soulless and burdened with creating some semblance of meaning for themselves.

The mission of the Bradley Center and Mind Matters is to push back against that view. At a deep level we know that we’re more than matter. Despite the challenges of our time, we don’t have to “acquiesce.” We can repeat with confidence that humans are not machines, and that the machines we create will never replace us. We’ll just have to decide whether we’re going to worship the technology we create or learn how to use it well and stay human in the process.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

Jacques Ellul and the Technocratic Society