The Technological Society was written in 1954 by French philosopher Jacques Ellul. The book traces humanity’s historical discovery of technology, and how technique has come to dominate every aspect of our lives. Ellul writes in an academic style that is not always very accessible, but often presents his arguments in a wonderfully lucid way.
Ellul’s thesis is that man’s obsession with technique, or scientific experimentation, is the cause of technological development and proliferation which has eventually led to a state of being where man is no longer in control of his technology but is a slave to it. And this isn’t a conspiracy theory, Ellul is not trying to dissuade his reader from adapting to the new environment he finds himself. Indeed, he clearly states that the alternatives to assimilating into the technological environment are catastrophic to the individual psychologically.
The author is describing a process that was once reversible but now no longer is. And it is not anyone’s fault, but simply the inevitable consequence of natural forces beyond our control. To live a prosperous life, sustain himself, and feed ever growing populations, man has had to devise new methods for food production, medicine, shelter, and weaponry. It is competition between nations that has given rise to technique. To properly understand this concept which Ellul discusses in great detail, it is useful to consider what it is not. Technique is not the same as technology. The latter is a by-product of the former. Technique is a systematic way of doing things. You can apply to technique to agriculture, politics, sports, music, and social life.
There was a time when systems didn’t exist. The only people who could claim a significant advantage over others was the genius, who was much more efficient at making sense of data, or interpreting it. But as systems were invented out of necessity, the genius became less relevant. Even a fool, if he were to work systematically, using the tools that are available to him, can be more efficient than a genius without such access.
As we became better at developing these systems or techniques by hyper-experimentation, we have become far more efficient at attaining our desired results, but not necessarily our desired goals. This is really the focus of the book. In falling in love with efficiency, we have lost sight of the things that are truly important in life. We have foregone freedom, family, love, poetry, beauty for convenience, expedience, economy, efficiency, and growth.
People have been turned into machines that no longer have authentic self-expression. They are nodes in a highly complex economic system. They have the illusion of freedom and they seek to escape their mundane existence by resorting to movies or music, where for a few hours they can experience a shadow of true freedom.
In addition to the fact that their jobs leaves them with no time to reflect their individuality through creative acts – the few moments they have to spare are invested in activities that are merely an escape from reality.
The systematization of society has resulted in a reality where individuals no longer eat when they are hungry or sleep when they are tired, they are instruments that are utilized for collective purposes, and they work according to a schedule that is outside their control. The exception are the artisans but they are a dying breed that have been made increasingly irrelevant due to the pressures of meeting consumer demand in one form or another.
Urbanization has resulted in an ugly artificial experience where man is removed from the beauty of nature. There are no longer any secluded areas by the sea or in the mountains due to overpopulation. People are going to be replaced by automation and this will inevitably accompany existential crises that have not been experienced before. The Bourgeois dream of an efficient, wealthy society has triumphed but at the price of everything that imbued life with value.
More than that, people are constantly subjected to state and/or business propaganda (advertising). This onslaught on man’s subconscious has resulted in psychological crises that have not been solved to this day.
Ellul argues that we were not meant to live our lives insulated from nature, we were designed to breathe fresh air, to interact with living things, to respond to our bodies. Our identity was supposed to be formed by human interaction and personal contemplation. Instead, we form our identities and conceptions of the world by reading the news, watching TV, and listening to the radio – all forms of propaganda.
Of course, technology has brought with it many benefits that are too numerous to count, but at what cost? That is the question that we should truly be asking ourselves according to Ellul. Even the brightest scientists are blind propagandizers of furthering investment into their field of research, but do not stop to ask: “to what end?”
Why is it important to go to the moon? Why is it important to go to Mars? Why is it important to build more precise and devasting weapons? The scientist is not interested in wrestling with these questions. Outside of his own narrow domain, he may be of average intelligence at best, and yet he has many supporters and followers who will follow his vision blindly. He is a slave to technique like the rest of us, but the difference is that he is an active contributor.
As Ellul describes this dystopic reality – it is disconcerting that more than seventy years later, many of his objections to the new equilibrium are perhaps even more pertinent today. We live in an age where the line between what is virtual and what is real is blurrier than it ever was. Many of us live most of our lives on a screen. But more dangerous than that, and this is a point Ellul makes clear with countless examples, we have not merely been hijacked by technology. That is, it is not simply that our physical environments have changed, but that our psychology has been reshaped.
We no longer think like humans. We think like objects that aim to maximize time. We are economic machines, and we no longer find value in anything outside the economic milieu. This way of thinking has permeated our relationships with our romantic partners, friends, and family, has resulted in neuroses and a vast number of psychological disorders.
We scoff at poetry and the arts, we are disconnected from the past, we value people according to their economic worth, not their character or the content of their thoughts. We live in a world that is becoming increasingly materialistic.
Keep in mind that Ellul is not criticizing Capitalism, in fact, to him capitalism has at least an intrinsic buffer against technique (since there are market forces in play). Communism and other totalitarian systems utilize technique in a far more efficient and directed way.
Ellul describes the problem as follows: a technical society (one that prioritizes efficiency) is one that will favor those who are economically efficient. Why? More wealth means more investment into efficient systems.
Under Capitalism, being materialistic is a natural by-product of a society that values efficiency. Under Communism, technique serves the purpose of the state. This is even more dangerous, since the intentions of the state are inevitably malicious. A dictator investing his country’s wealth into building killing machines by perfecting technique is arguably more dangerous than a society that only does so peripherally.