The technique of technology

Posted on February 19, 2009

While I admit to being a little hesitant at reading such a grandiose PDF as presented from The technological society by Jacques Ellul, I found a bounty of words and phrases (some that I agreed with, some that I didn't) of which I made note. I'll try to make comments about as many as possible, although an entire Internet might not be enough room to give my thoughts about this text.

Ellul claims that technique exists precisely due to the ability to create machines, and that everyone agrees with the notion that machines create an inhuman atmosphere (pp. 3-5). He goes on to explain that science actually provided answers to how to create technique and machines, but without technical means, science cannot advance (pp. 7-8). From these statements, I gather that Ellul thinks virtually everything not natural either is a machine or was created by one. This seems reasonable, although his definition of machine is probably too broad for today's standards. I disagree, though, with his supposed entanglement between science and technique in all circumstances. Science can continue to advance without any machines or technique, but only so far. Da Vinci managed to surpass many inventors during his time without the necessary means to build helicopters or some of the massive aqueduct systems he designed. Society couldn't do much with his plans until machines caught up, but that doesn't mean the science and mathematical formulas couldn't be theorized.

The various definitions of technique from other experts all seem reasonably accurate and seem to foreshadow Ellul's tendency to tie technology, history, and economic sustainability into a gift-wrapped cultural phenomenon. Lasswell's definition - "the ensemble of practices by which one uses available resources in order to achieve certain valued ends" (p. 18) - gives the best summary of Ellul's thoughts, assuming that there remains a separation between technical operation and technical phenomenon (p. 19). A computer is a machine, and just because someone uses a computer to type does not mean that person has the ability to invent and create new technology.

I had never considered a comparison between magic and technology, but it seems plausible. The magician manipulates his surroundings to his benefit (p. 25) to wow the audience. Technology manipulates the surroundings to the machine's benefit, which can amount to efficiency, money, or most likely, both. I'm not completely buying this analogy because hiding a coin in one's hand does not seem to be any sort of technological feat, but the ability to change your environment, and the perception of others of the environment, can be a powerful force.

From there, Ellul discusses historical and religious forces that held technology back at various periods of time. Again, this is a perfect parallel to magic, while people fear the unknown and anything that is outside of what is already factual or what is already believed (by any number of faith-based groups). The descriptions of the Greeks (suspicious of technical activity because of an implied moderation (p. 29)) to the Romans (continuity and internal coherence of society (p. 31)) to the rise of Christianity from the 4th Century to 10th Century (technical activities were evil (p. 33)) seemed to follow a methodical path of technological development. The author makes an interesting comment regarding the suppression of slavery by Christians, considering this to be the "great obstacle of technical development" (p. 35). Let's face it, even though we may think we aren't slaves now, if we are employed and collecting a paycheck, we aren't that much different than servants during the Middle Ages.

Ellul ponders why people started using technique for society's sake in the 18th Century (p. 44). My question, which is roughly the same, is why did people start thinking on their own? He gives his own reasons: fruition of a extended 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). Are these really the answers? They sound plausible enough, especially the fact that people flocked to dense cities and needed some sort of respite from close quarters and squalid surroundings. Work, pay, and a new way of life sprung about, and capitalism was born. Well, I should say that capitalism was improvised, as elements of it had existed before this time. Ellul claims that Americans were able to polish capitalism due to its exceptional flexibility (p. 59). I'm not so sure it's that or if the attitude of a few wealthy individuals decided to shape and twist the rest of the population in whatever mold they wanted.

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