New technique, same old story?

Posted on March 1, 2009

Question: Considering the work of Ellul complete the following:

Write about/describe an example of a technique in today's society. Tell its story and the need for the creation/adoption of this technique and the new techniques that resulted from it? Could we have controlled for this technique? Is there or was there an alternative?

I had originally assumed it would be easy to select a single technique to discuss, but I found myself trying to answer the question posed above before finalizing my selection. I then decided to just pick something in which I'm interested, which led me to maglev. According to the Wikipedia, maglev (short for magnetic levitation) is a type of transportation that suspends, guides, and propels trains using levitation from a substantially large number of magnets for lift and propulsion. Maglev trains are advantageous with respect to mass transportation because they move at faster speeds (in excess of 300 miles per hour) and run primarily on electricity, instead of consuming fossil fuels and carrying a large amount of fuel within the structure. However, this variety of train has not caught on per se due to the initial costs involved and because the systems cannot be deployed by utilizing existing mass transit framework, rail lines, etc.

Maglev technology has been in existence since the early '70s, and Hamburg, Germany, launched the Transrapid 05, the first meglev licensed for passenger transportation, in 1979. Since that time, a number of countries have built their own rail lines, with the most notable coming in Japan. To date, 100,000 residents in the Yamanshi Prefecture have signed up to ride the JR-Maglev, which had more than 80,000 riders during a trial period in 2004.

This particular technique is one of the latest evolutions of a long line of transportation options, specifically mass transit. From boats to railroads to busses to airplanes to subways to light rail systems, each serves similar but different functions at the same time. The necessities of collective travel have existed since the beginning of time, but the need to do so in a swift manner has been more of a modern fascination. I doubt that people seriously wanted their journeys to necessarily last as long as possible, but the reason people move from place to place was oftentimes for travel's sake. In recent times, however, society has found a need to expedite voyages, making them frequently and mundane.

Ellul mentions five phenomena that contributed to the transformation of civilization, namely "the fruition of a long technical experience; population expansion; the suitability of the economic environment; the plasticity of the social milieu; and the appearance of a clear technical intention" (p. 47). It is apparent to me that having improved modes of mass transportation enables individuals to expand their living "presence," sometimes for the purpose of working and residing on opposite ends of a land formation. One can live down the street from old friends, relatives, etc. but not be constrained to work within the same close-knit group of people. This, obviously, is just a single example of how Ellul could explain a community's need to be connected to nearby cities, as well as those not so close in proximity. If the technique exists, and the intention for the technique benefits some level of society, then it does have merit and option to be considered for long-term feasibility.

The problem with meglev trains is that culture plays a huge role in mass transportation. Some prefer their own private space, driving their own cars, even when alternatives are readily available. This lack of concern for society as a whole may not be completely without warrant. For instance, I chose to purchase a parking pass here at Towson after riding the city bus in September. I have no qualms with riding the bus, as I have done successfully with jobs I have held previously. By driving to school, I save myself 30-45 minutes that I could be spending with my girlfriend or my pets. Then again, on a normal day, I might be able to finish reading on the bus that I would have to do at home anyway, so the amount of time I am saving does not completely outweigh the cost of gas and wear and tear on my vehicle. Incidentally, I've decided that next year, I probably will again take the bus to school.

If Ellul had to compare mass transit, and specifically, maglev trains, to a past civilization, I think he may choose the Romans, due to their requirement of an exact outcome and internal coherence of society (p. 31). The Romans were well known for their capabilities of building long-lasting roads, some of which can still be seen today. The Romans had in mind the goal of continuity, and they strived to put their mark on everything surrounding them.

I believe that most transportation options have been somewhat controlled, mainly because of the resources or knowledge available at the time. It's reasonable to believe that different more useful techniques will be invented in this realm, but without a definitive reason to produce, alternatives may never leave the drawing board. It remains to be seen how if maglev trains will catch on, or if they will become a caboose of a passing fad.

Ellul, J. (1964). The technological society. New York: Knopf.



I also think that mass transit sometimes doesn't catch on because it's not always reliable. That is probably one of the main reasons that I don't take the light rail to work (besides there not being a stop very close). Most times when I take the lightrail and need to be somewhere at a certain time, I am either late or cutting it too close for comfort!

Mon, 03/02/2009 - 13:35 Permalink

Interesting technology to choose (surprisingly not the first time I said this in a blog comment today) and the angle you took on the argument is not what I had expected. In the history of transportation, especially rail-based transportation, maglev is near the very end of the time line. According to the assignment you are asked to discuss the technologies that follow it and in this case there are few. Maybe the technology to discuss was the locomotive and work your way to the maglev. The maglev arguably has solved all of the shortcomings of the locomotive; no fossil fuel needed, no pollution, it's faster, it's quieter, etc..

I think the maglev is a great technology to discuss given man's need to travel and the techniques that were created becasue of it. But I am unsure of starting with this technique to elaborate and epitomize Ellul's argument.

Mon, 03/02/2009 - 15:49 Permalink

When selecting a technology for the assignment, I seemed to be more stuck on the phrase "today's society" in determining what to choose. I don't really consider the locomotive as a current technology when it comes to mass transportation, the subject with which I was trying to focus. Maybe what I should have honed in on was Ellul's comments regarding the frequent conflict between economic productivity and technical progress in general (p. 17). Even if we have decided that maglev transportation is the end of the line (which is another argument altogether), that does not mean society will immediately replace other modes of mass transit with this one. Furthermore, as Erin points out, even the greatest technique, with regard to efficient fuel, travel time, etc., may still not be enough for society to embrace due to other more reliable and more comforting techniques. I doubt that maglev is near the end of the mass transportation line, but instead of focusing on the mechanical aspects of trains, I think we could see a larger focus on the human technique of finding out what will make more people consider this mode of transportation.

Mon, 03/02/2009 - 22:46 Permalink