The Technological Society, by Jacques Ellul, translated by John Wilkinson, New York: Vintage Paperbacks, 1967, 449 pp., $2.45
For Jacques Ellul, technique is a devil-word: it refers to an invisible web that holds modern man enthralled, pampered, and blinded. Ellul, the social critic, has an aversion for the technical organization (and frame of mind) that underlies a technological society. As a sociologist, he divides the subject of his ire into three principal subdivisions: economic technique, technique of organization, and human technique. He goes into considerable detail about these aspects of the total system in The Technological Society.
Despite his insistence that he wrote this book as a dispassionate observer of technique, a personal philosophy dominates what is ostensibly a work of sociology. In the foreword, he says: "The reader deserves and has my assurance that I have not set out to prove anything. I do not seek to show, say, that man is determined, or that technique is bad, or any thing else of the kind." Remove the negatives from those sentences and you'll have a thumbnail sketch of what Ellul's book is all about. The Technological Society is an attempt to define technique, historically, when it played a subordinate role to moral conscience (that is, when it was tradition), and in the industrial/technocratic age where it is the force that guides men's lives. Speaking of technique today, Ellul says it is that which dehumanizes man.
Although Ellul has something of worth to say as a social critic (he laments the advent of universal standardization), he must finally be judged as a dishonest philosopher, vainly seeking to deny he has a thesis. Ellul does not like machines, but he does not attack them outright. He would blame the machine age for his disaffection, but he does not attack the machine age outright! Instead, he gives us technique, an elastic term that means whatever Ellul chooses.
What it comes down to is that it is practically impossible to draw a distinction between tradition and technique—as Ellul does—without Ellulian philosophy. We are told that where technique is concerned, man does not exercise control; technique governs its own autonomous development. It is so pervasive that there is no part of our lives in which it does not apply. Technique takes away our freedom. Ellul dismisses the differences between the United States and the Soviet Union as superficial because technique holds dominion over both. Humans, we are told, are in no way the agents of technical progress.
Essential to his thesis is the personification of technique. It is his own personal demon. To touch this force is not to modify it but to become seduced by it. To abstain from technical pursuits is to be free.
It is peculiar that someone who says he takes no position on his subject can also say: "In discussing technique today it is impossible not to take a position. And the position we take is determined by a historical choice, conscious or unconscious." This appears to be a contradiction, but it is difficult to pin Ellul down. He has constructed the verbal equivalent of an elaborate optical illusion; to focus on one part is to obscure the rest from view. The art of what he has accomplished is that you could quote an entire chapter and still be open to the charge of quoting out of context. Technique, it seems, creates its own context.
What would the world be like without technique? It would be Ellul's utopia, industry restricted to the cottage level and man living close to the earth—a picture portrayed idyllically more and more these days. There is a naive agrarian anarchism here, but let us not mistake this for any sort of respect for human liberty.
Given nourishment, Ellulian thought could lead to a Luddite revolution where the masses rise up to smash the machines that make their life possible. Ellul would not be part of such an upheaval, but only because he would object to the disruptive noise and bother of it all. He would prefer changing people's attitudes so that, in time, new machines would not be made. And so would begin the great retreat back into the simplicity of a new Dark Age.
The West can ill afford to take Ellul or his ilk seriously. In a world where the differences between good guys and bad guys are anything but superficial, the idea of an autonomous technique should be dismissed as fantasy.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Technological Society".