Neil's Reviews > The Technological Society

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul
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Apr 16, 2013

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Ellul writes about the situation of humanity in a civilisation that he, like some other writers of the time (Mumford, Ferkiss, to some extent Daniel Bell), regards as fundamentally different in character due to technological influence.

Despite the book's title in English, Ellul's major topic of concern isn't "technology" in the form of machinery or computerisation, but "technique". Ellul defines technique as the itentional application of a repeatable means engaged in order to achieve an identified end. He claims that analyses which characterise society in terms of the influence of technoloy are partially right, but in his view technique goes beyond just mechanical automation, and includes things like techniques for social organisation, economic techniques, techniques for manipulating humanity (propaganda), even magic is considered to be a technique, and one of the oldest: the use of ritual to achieve some mystic end fits comfortably into his definition above.

Ellul contends that "technique" as it exists in contemporary society is quite different from the role technique played in earlier civilisation. Whereas in previous societies technique was applied to only parts of the life of those societies, and then only sporadically and fitfully, Ellul claims that the major societies of his day - France, the UK, the US, the Soviet Union - had altered, and consequently lost control of the application and development technique in their societies. His explanation for this happening merely due to a "felcitous combination of factors" in England and France in the 18th century is somewhat unsatisfactory historically speaking, but Ellul is more concerned with analysing technique in the present than in exploring its past.

And he does that with tremendous detail - so much so, in fact, that the reader is left with the sense that "technical society" has completely enclosed humanity, with no escape possible. Ellul makes quite clear that he is less concerned with "techniques" (the individual application of a technique in a given field), but with "technique", the entire complex of inter-related techniques that operate together in order to constitute and to develop modern civilisations. He also contends that what constitutes "technique" in modern societies has a very different character from "technique" as it was practised in less technically-advanced societies. Technique for us is potentially applicable to any area of life, and unlike earlier techniques, our techniques are always judged and modified by the criteria of efficiency. Our techniques must always be the most efficient technique possible, and new techniques are always being explored, to see if they are more efficient. Ellul claims that in such a situation, the actual end to which any technique is oriented gets forgotten in the drive for efficiency of technique.

The result is the unmooring of technique from its original purpose. Technique, says Ellul, becomes a being of sorts in its own right. And while humans must still be involved in the development and application of technique, they have no real control over its devlopment and become subordinated to the technical imperative. All of technical society is organised in terms of technique, is oriented towards the further development and refinement of technique, and trains and educates people within the society to find happiness and satisfaction in the service of technique. Any area of life which is not subjectable to technique (arts, ethics, community are some of the scattered examples Ellul gives of such areas) have not part in technical society, and do not exist within it.

To the extent that such things *do* exist in our society, Ellul claims that this is evidence that the imperative of technical society have not yet developed to the point where it has been fully eliminated. But this is no comfort, as there is no resistance to technique: any clash between action organised on technical principles and action that is not inevitably leads to the victory of technique due to its superior efficiency. The only recourse in such a conflict is to fight fire with fire, or rather, technique with technique. And so the final victory goes to technique.

Ellul does go into some concrete analysis of specific technical complexes (while still stressing in each case the inter-relationships between them). He contrasts older technical arrangements with newer ones in the areas of economics and politics. His most intriguing analysis - albeit, like the others, an analysis which has not aged all that well - is what he describes as the application of technique in the "human sciences". By this he refers to propaganda, psychoanalysis in the main, along with entertainment, psychology and sport to a lesser degree. He rejects the older model of propaganda in which propaganda is intended to immediately spur specific action in favour of one directly taken from the "mass society" thesis, as pioneered (or so I believe) by the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. For Ellul, propaganda is rendered effective through mass media, and its effect is not on action but on human character: "man"[sic] is taught by the mass media to become permanently compliant and receptive. Psychoanalysis is the "science" which provides the means to do this without the subject realising it. All this, it must be stressed, isn't done in order to promote the agenda of any individual or group; it's to promote the self-directed development and propagation of technique.

Where human wellbeing is the goal of technique - for example when scientific analysis shows that workers are more productive if they are happy,and the work environment improved as a consequence- Ellul points out that this improvement is not intended for the well-being of workers, but for the well-being of technique. He suggests it might at some point be possible that technique would show that killing or maiming workers would be beneficial to technique. He denies that there is any possibility of a humanist solution to the issue raised by technique. In all areas of life, for Ellul, the only way to oppose technique is through more technique. Ellul contends that the "human sciences" concerned with the welfare of the worker arose because of technique, not because of any sense of compassion for workers or acknowledgement of their humanity; any woes caused by a field of work dominated by technical procedured are to be ameliorated only to the extent that they allow for a return to the same dehumanising work. Ellul likens it to technique providing the antidote "as it distills the poison".

Art and rebellion fair little better as potential methods of emancipation from technique, in Ellul's estimation. Such things exist in a technical society, but only to the extent that they can be co-opted by technique. Art, especially, is mass art. Its primary outlet is television and radio, and it is little more than a chance for the empty shell of a person that "mass man[sic]" once was to imagine being something other than a servant of technique for a short time. Art outside of the distribution channels available - channels which are, like everything else, geared towards nothing but the exercise and development of technique, is never even heard of.

Rebellion exists, but such groups as do exist are actually useful, as they provide a symbolic outlet for dissatisfaction in the general population. Of course, unless such groups themselves adopt technique in their action, thereby becoming what they oppose, they will be unable to do anything due to the superior efficiency that technique can bring to bear on any problem.

This incredibly dreary picture of where "tehcnological society" is and where it is inevitably headed has led to Ellul being labelled both a fatalist and a technical determinist. In discursive terms, what Ellul has offered up in this book is the epitome of a totalising discourse. All of existence is defined and described in relation to technique, nothing is outside it. Anyone who claims to the contrary, as Ellul asserts in his preface to the American edition, simply hasn't properly assessed the facts of the situation.

Ellul's idea of analysing "technique" rather than technology is interesting, although it is not that much different from Weber's earlier analysis of "instrumental rationality" and his description of the development of the "iron cage of bureaucracy". All Ellul has done is to posit a broader phenomenon than either "instrumental rationality" or "technology" as a means of explaining the evolution of society.

Where his analysis falls down I think is in the imputation of autonomy to technical development. Very early on, Ellul sneaks in a value-driven element in his description of technique as it exists today, but then proceeds to discuss technique as if that value is eternal and immutable. This value - efficiency - isn't nearly as important to the application of technique today as Ellul claims it is.

Ellul even implicitly acknowledges this: in his discussion of capitalism and machine development, Ellul notes that capitalism isn't entirely suited to efficiency because, whereas "technique" requires the putting into operation of the newest and most efficient machine as soon as possible, capitalism retards this drive to efficiency because the capitalist has made a large investment in the older machine, and it wouldn't be profitable for the capitalist to replace that machine right away. Ellul explicitly claims that "capitalism...will be crushed" due to this inability to accomodate technique - something which the more technically developed Soviet Union could do. Let us pause for a moment to consider the judgement of history on this claim.

What Ellul describes as an autonomous technical complex of society opposing capitalism can much more readily be described as the conflict between choosing whether efficiency or profit is a more important value in a choice between two techniques. This acknowledges the reality of efficiency as a criterion for technical development, and acknowledges it can be a problematic one, but it avoids accepting the reality of Ellul's oppressive technical complex inescapably dominating society, and allows the possibility of change.

Even in positing "efficiency" as a dominant, rather tnan exclusive goal, for choosing which techniques get developed and applied, this begs the question of what exactly is meant by "efficient". Ellul had criticised conceptions of "technology" that saw it solely as a means of increasing productivity, but I haven't found any situation in which a quantitative measure that he applies to "technique" (or what I would term the efficient application of techniques) can be separated from its "yield" in productive terms.

He also describes several forms of technique which can be described in terms of qualitative effectiveness, but in those cases he is unable to avoid describing those techniques in terms of effectiveness of their determined ends. Admittedly, the end he posits is simply the more efficient application of technique (means) in another area. So, for example, the "human sciences" are developed to provide psychic relief from the tensions incurred upon them by the participation in the application of technique in various areas of life - the experience of being a human cog in an assembly line, or a single vote in an organised political party. In so doing, they integrate humanity further into the society of technique, so that there is no part of humanity that is not developed by technique, with the goal of the furtherance of technique.

But this definition is circular. What is the criteria of efficiency of the human sciences? A more efficient human component of technique in other areas. What is the criterion of efficiency in these areas? It's either quantitative,which is not a guarantee of unambiguous definition: what quantity? how measured? why that quantity and not another?; or else if it's not freely defined by humanity outside of the action of technique (something Ellul denies is possible), then it must be defined in reference to some other technique. But what is the criteria for efficiency of that technique? On it goes.

Ellul, I suspect, sees this as justification for believing technique (or more accurately, technique where the dominant criterion is efficiency) to be autonomous and self-perpetuating. I think that it's simply a discursive deception, a means of constituting a totalising edifice of "technological civilisation" through describing a type of mode of action which is supposedly far superior to any other, but which is only superior in terms of criterion that exist within the very edifice of the "technological civilisation" that this mode of action supposedly precedes. But it is this suppposed superiority of the mode of action that leads to it creating the edifice of "technological civilisation" that is the only criterion in which its superiority could be recognised.

In Foucauldian terms, this concept of "efficiency" (which is what Ellul actually means most of the time that he is talking about "technique") is constituted by the very discourse which then claims to posit "efficiency" as its subject of study. "Efficiency" isn't what Ellul's studying, it's what he's defining. The covert definition, again in Foucauldian terms, allows for the discursive exercise of power, no coercively, but productively: Ellul can give such a convincing account of technique/efficiency and its consequences because he's the one who has covertly set the parameters on what the nature of technique/efficiency actually is.

What's left, once this discursively consituted element of the definition of efficiency is rightly ignored, is that definition of efficiency that isn't defined solely in reference to Ellul's technical complex. These are the quantitative judgements about efficiency. But even here, as I said earlier, judgements about what to measure and why mean that efficiency defined more objectively (albeit still normatively) as quantitative increase still leaves plenty of room for interpretation about how best to define efficiency in a particular case, or what types of efficiency are more desirable than others: should it go faster? Or longer? Is slower more efficient for some purposes?

To summarise, Ellul has provided a very useful way of thinking about an impersonal aspect of existence that isn't often considered holistically. The impersonality of technology and the impersonality of bureaucratic rationality may well be subsummable under a broader study of "technique" as Ellul defined it initially: the intentional application of repeatable acts towards a defined goal (although even here, a Foucauldian eye might turned on this definition might yield something interesting). Where he goes badly wrong is in his confusion of modern technique with efficiency, and his failure to consider the definition of efficiency as something that is in the eye of beholder, not least in the eye of the beholder named Jacques Ellul.

We don't need to accept Ellul's definition of efficiency to still find something useful in his analysis. We can note that our society does have an obsession with efficiency, particularly as it relates to productivity and wealth. Unlike Ellul, we don't need to accept efficiency in these areas as the only possible goal of the application of technique. We don't even need to accept it as the only type of possible efficiency. Wouldn't we better off with more efficient justice? More efficient education? So long as we remember this in't the only criterion, and so long as we are careful about what we mean by "efficient", I think that we would. And I think we can legitimately use "techniques", whether social, economic or technological, to achieve our goals without fear. Or at least, without fear from technique....
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