Technological Society

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* Book: The Technological Society. By Jacques Ellul. Vintage Books, 1964



From the Wikipedia:

"The Technological Society is a book on the subject of technique by French philosopher, theologian and sociologist Jacques Ellul. Originally published in French in 1954, it was translated into English in 1964.

The central concept defining a technological society is technique. Technique is different from machines, technology, or procedures for attaining an end. "In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity."

Ellul argues that modern society is being dominated by technique, which he defines as a series of means that are established to achieve an end. Technique is ultimately focused on the concept of efficiency. The term "technique" is to be comprehended in its broadest possible meaning as it touches upon virtually all areas of life, including science, automation, but also politics and human relations."



1. Adam Zmarzlinski:

"To read Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society is to begin a self-reflective journey through one’s own day-to-day interactions with technology. Part-history and part-political sociology, the text is a detailed analysis of everyday activities—both individual and societal such as cleaning or economies—and their historical journey from basic human actions to efficient, technologically-driven, and system-controlled processes.

Ellul takes the reader on a prophetic ride into the future from a seat set firmly in a confusingly contradictory post-World War II world of anxiety and optimism. Administration, organization, and bureaucracy are the main tour guides through, what I can only call, efficiency theme park. Via the prism of the past, mainly the operational efficiency of the brutality of the Holocaust, Ellul looks at modern institutions such as education, entertainment, and information technology, to name a few, and does so by scrutinizing, in detail, the three major forms of technique: that of the economy, state, and humanity, which he defines as hopeful. The result is a profound evaluation of the human need for order and the dangers that arise from a dependence on that order to maximize efficiency and, in some cases, profits.

Where George Orwell addressed state control over the individual in his novel 1984, Aldous Huxley scientific control in The Brave New World and Anthony Burgess social manipulation in A Clockwork Orange, Ellul addresses all of those in a well-researched, none-fiction text that can only be called one of the most important, and most overlooked, books of the past century. "


2. Samuel Matlack:

"La Technique, which has since become his most widely known book, published sixty years ago in French (1954) and fifty years ago in English (1964) under the title The Technological Society. Its translator, John Wilkinson, had heard of it through his University of California colleague at the time, Aldous Huxley (both also present at the meeting), who had suggested that the book would become one of the century’s best works of social criticism. This anniversary of the book’s release is an opportunity to reflect on Ellul’s arguments and on the critical response they drew, and on their meaning for us today.

One concern about Ellul must be addressed before we proceed. As many critics have complained, his argument at times reaches a low register of angsty fatalism. For this reason, readers who are grateful for the wonders of science and technology that make possible much of what is good about being alive today may find it difficult to tolerate Ellul. But it would be a mistake to disparage his work on this basis, for two reasons.

First, recalling the era in which The Technological Society was written, the early 1950s, may help explain some of the doomsaying. The memory of global war was fresh. The atomic age had arrived. The U.S.–Soviet arms race raised the prospect of fiery mass destruction. Powerful new technologies, like television, were reshaping society, while talk of computers and space was moving from science fiction stories to newspaper headlines. Critical research breakthroughs, like the discovery in 1953 of the structure of DNA, hinted at strange new powers. Utopian dreams commingled with nightmares of terrible ruin. Against this backdrop, Ellul asked whether we can truly deliberate about the future when the scales seem rigged in favor of an incontestable notion of technical advancement. Although our hopes and fears may now be different, this question remains at least as relevant today as it was six decades ago, so Ellul’s response is worthy of our attention.

Second, describing Ellul as a doomsayer because of how extreme some of his claims sound is, as we will see, unjust and superficial. If we place The Technological Society in the context of some of his other writings and his intellectual, spiritual, and personal commitments, we see his apparent pessimism about our society’s bondage to technology alongside what is ultimately a message of freedom and hope.


Unfortunately, the English rendering of the book’s original full title La technique ou l’enjeu du siècle (technique or the stake of the century) as The Technological Society is likely to encourage the thought that the book is about technology and its place in society. While this is not entirely wrong, it distracts from the much broader concept of technique.

“As I use it,” Ellul wrote in a note inserted in the English edition of the book, the term technique “does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end.” Rather, it is “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency … in every field of human activity.” Throughout the book, he also describes it as an “ensemble” or a “complex”; in a later book he would write of “the technological system.” Whether such a totality that includes all human activities in fact exists in any meaningful sense is a question critics and commentators have debated since the book’s publication. Ellul assures us that it is “not a theoretical construct” but is the defining feature of twentieth-century society. Marx’s focus on capital had become outdated. “No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world.” The first two chapters of the book aim at making this case.

Although technique does not refer simply to technology and machinery, Ellul writes that the machine “represents the ideal toward which technique strives.” The machine has created the modern, industrial world, but it was originally a poor fit for society; technique was the process of adapting social conditions to the smooth churning of the machine, for instance in the way urban housing developed around factories and traffic patterns were then designed to accommodate high-volume traffic in densely populated cities. “All-embracing technique is in fact the consciousness of the mechanized world.” Technique is a certain kind of social change, maybe even a Zeitgeist or ethos, and the process of adaptation is essential to it.

Furthermore, although we often think of technology as something that flows from science, Ellul argues that technique has historically tended to precede science. The presence of technical ways of manipulating, observing, and thinking about the world is often a prerequisite for new scientific inquiries and insights. (The telescope and microscope come to mind.)

Technique transforms traditional practices by making them conscious and rational — by turning the tacit into the explicit and by relying on the authority of specialists and calculations to find the most efficient, most effective, most profitable way of doing something. Examples are all around us; indeed, Ellul goes so far as to say that “there is no field where technique is not dominant.” Consider, for instance, the disciplines of financial engineering and quantitative finance, which are based on applied mathematics, using computational modeling and probability theory to maximize the profitability of financial trades.

Or consider the dramatic increase in recent decades of standardized testing in U.S. public schools. Critics argue that these tests are ill-suited for giving a comprehensive account of students’ learning; that they incentivize “teaching to the test” instead of developing thinking skills and encouraging real understanding; and that they transform public schooling into a factory-like system of mass instruction detrimental to freedom and creativity. In Ellul’s way of thinking, once the technique of standardized testing is in place, the primary concern for everyone involved becomes improving the means of learning so as to meet the standards, while the ends of learning — the ultimate purposes of educating our young — move out of sight. (Neil Postman, influenced by Ellul, made a related argument in his 1996 book The End of Education.) Also, the tests help create a large complex of interrelated forces and technologies that are autonomous of families, teachers, and students: political initiatives and laws, bureaucrats, test producers and publishers, test scoring technologies, test data analysis and statistics.

How did we reach a point where “nothing at all escapes technique today”? Ellul offers a long genealogy of technique, from primitive man to the Greeks and Romans, to Christianity, the early modern era, and lastly the Industrial Revolution, when technique finally came into ascendancy. Ellul’s attention to social changes — technological, economic, legal, administrative, institutional — makes it a more earthy account of modern technical development than those frequently given that focus entirely on shifts in philosophical and religious outlooks. (This hints at the influence on Ellul of Marx, who famously rejected Hegel’s preoccupation with consciousness, rather than the material conditions of life, in understanding history.) While explanations from the history of ideas are not irrelevant for Ellul — although he probably dismisses them far too quickly — he considers them sorely lacking when it comes to explaining the rapid spread of technical development across Europe. A better explanation, he believes, can be found in the convergence of five phenomena in the nineteenth century: the availability of scientific knowledge amassed over centuries; population growth; an economy at once stable but adaptable; a clear intention on the part of the whole society to exploit technical possibilities in all areas; and perhaps most importantly social plasticity — that is, a society willing to surrender its religious and social taboos and to trade in the supremacy of traditional groups for that of the individual.

This social plasticity is both the condition most favorable for technical development and also an effect of this development, especially when technology is exported to societies that are not already plastic; technique creates the circumstances in which it flourishes. In the nineteenth century, for instance, the decreased stability of families, local groups, and rural districts made possible the process of urbanization as cities drew individuals in search of technical labor. The subsequent export of factory work reproduced in other places the same condition of social instability.


Ellul spends three chapters further demonstrating how the economy, politics, and society are each increasingly beholden to technique. He then concludes the book with a very short chapter titled “A Look at the Future” that is especially noteworthy. As part of this chapter, Ellul exposes the naïveté of scientists and techno-utopians who predicted the kinds of radical transformations by the year 2000 that in retrospect we can see were gross exaggerations, even if there have been important steps in the projected direction, for instance in genetic engineering, artificial reproduction, and the field we now know as neuroscience. But their naïveté, Ellul writes, has less to do with their technical predictions than with their failure to consider the immense social transformation that would be necessary to accommodate the new inventions. Ellul urges us to ask the question “how, socially, politically, morally, and humanly, shall we contrive to get there?” The only answer possible — the only one that would correspond to the promise of the radical technological change — is a totalitarian dictatorship, Ellul says. In other words, these scientists’ and futurists’ platitudes about the golden age ahead are empty of all moral and political wisdom. “Particularly disquieting is the gap between the enormous power they wield and their critical ability, which must be estimated as null.”

Ellul made clear earlier in the book that human adaptation to technique is certainly possible and is in fact constantly occurring. He does not argue, as some critics of technology do, that people are always subject to various techniques — we do often govern them: we operate machines, we construct roads, we print newspapers. But even in governing techniques, we adapt to their demands and structures, and our activities are gradually shaped by them. The Technological Society raises the question of whether this social adaptation is as desirable as we tend to assume it will be."



The Reception of the book

Samuel Mattack:

"The book was all but ignored upon its publication in France in 1954. John Wilkinson, who would translate it into English a decade later, noted in an interview that he could not find any reviews but for one in the London Times, even though Ellul was fairly well known in France.

The Technological Society has had more influence in the United States than anywhere else. The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, which had hosted the 1962 Encyclopædia Britannica conference and arranged the book’s translation, did much to promote early discussions of Ellul’s argument, especially under the leadership of Robert M. Hutchins and one of the Center’s consultants, Scott Buchanan — both prominent champions of liberal arts education. In his conference paper, Buchanan suggested that if Plato, in writing his Republic, “had been faced with the panoply of artificial technical operations, processes and products among which we live, he surely would have been led to construct something like the technical phenomenon that we find in Jacques Ellul’s La Technique.” Columbia University sociologist Robert Merton wrote in the introduction to the English version that Ellul’s “comprehensive and forceful social philosophy” of our society is “neither a latter-day Luddite tract nor a sociological apocalypse. He shows that he is thoroughly familiar with the cant perpetuated by technophobes and for the most part manages to avoid their clichés.”

Among Ellul’s many critics, one early reviewer of the book described him as having “an agile mind belaboring an over-simplified analysis.” Ellul has defined technique so broadly, the reviewer wrote, that he is compelled to see all social development as lumped together within it. Similarly, a leading sociology professor wrote, “more philosophical than sociological, this treatise belongs among other writings on the Lugubrious Fate of Man,” and its thesis cannot be falsified because it is largely true by definition. A 1964 article in the New York Review of Books (which drew a response from Ellul) accused him of providing “no factual information” and called the book fantastical and hostile to modern technology. In a 1984 book, the German-American philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann criticized Ellul for trying to use technology “to explain everything” even while leaving “entirely unexplained and obscure” just what technique and technology are.

Perhaps the most typical response to The Technological Society is summed up in the sentiment of another reviewer who in 1971 pointed to an “underlying absurdity … in Ellul’s tireless insistence that there can be no hope for man to escape his apocalyptic impasse with technique.” Christopher Lasch too, in a 1970 essay on Ellul’s sociological works, points to his “technological determinism” and the “bleakness” of the book’s pessimism.

More recently, technology critic Evgeny Morozov in To Save Everything, Click Here (2013) rejected wholesale Ellul’s attempt at understanding technique as inclusive of but much greater than particular technologies: “Such grand rhetoric, for all the quasi-religious fervor it used to generate, is long past its expiration date. It’s time to give up this talk of ‘Technology’ with a big T and instead figure out how different technologies can boost or compromise the human condition.”

Not everyone is so down on Ellul’s analysis of technique. It is still regularly referenced and quoted in popular and scholarly books and essays about technology. A 2012 volume about Ellul by three Wheaton College professors includes a chapter dedicated to his thoughts on technology. More than a dozen essays are collected in the 2013 anthology Jacques Ellul and the Technological Society in the 21st Century, including one in which the philosopher of technology Carl Mitcham sheds light on how The Technological Society became more important in the United States than in France. (Christian sociologists and political activists deserve the credit, Mitcham explains; the former found the book useful for their critique of racism and consumerism, while the latter found it helpful in challenging the idea of American exceptionalism during the Vietnam War.) And it is surely noteworthy that The Technological Society remains in print a half-century after its English-language publication.

In some respects, the critical response to The Technological Society is similar to that received by Martin Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” which was published the same year Ellul’s book was originally released. Both scholars are often looked at as too deterministic, too pessimistic, and so generalizing in their claims as to obscure crucial differences. The two texts indeed have much in common: very broad definitions of technology, arguments about the priority of technology over science, attempts to get at the essence of how technology operates on our perception and actions, claims that technology plays essentially the same role in the Soviet Union and the United States, and an overall demoralizing assessment of human entrapment in this crisis. And yet Ellul and Heidegger are worlds apart in their respective views on politics and religion, and on the role philosophy and history play in understanding technology. As early as 1934, Ellul was aware of Heidegger’s political views and concluded, as his long-time interviewer Patrick Troude-Chastenet writes, “that someone who made such gross errors of judgment in political thinking could be of no avail to him in his search for an understanding of the world in which we live.” Ellul objected to Heidegger’s abstract language and denied all intellectual association. Troude-Chastenet warns against mistaking Ellul’s theories for a copy of Heidegger’s or of those of the Frankfurt School. Ellul had “not read the former” and “diverges on a good many points from the latter.”