“It is mere vanity to wish to distinguish a technique as good or bad according to its end. Whether technique acts to the advantage of a dictator or of a democracy, it makes use of the same weapons, acts on the individual and manipulates his subconscious in identical ways, and in the end leads to the formation of exactly the same type of human being...the well-kneaded citizen.”
Ellul’s defenders say the bluntness of his approach is one reason the profundity of his ideas has been overlooked. “He’s so easily pigeon-holed and dismissed,” says Albert Borgmann, a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana. “People see him as just a bringer of bad news, but the two most important things in his writing aren’t taken into account. One is the comprehensiveness of his explanation of the technological phenomenon. The second is his powerful moral concern. Those two aspects of Ellul’s thought are not as influential as I’d like them to be.”
The gathering of the Ellul faithful at Wheaton College this week will be small: Only about 60 people have signed up. That’s an indication both of Ellul’s disfavor in the academy and of the aging of his original core of supporters. The conference organizers have gone out of their way to include papers by younger scholars, however, and there are plans to discuss how to best carry Ellul’s message into the future.
The question can fairly be asked whether such an emphatic bringer of bad news believed there would be a future. Certainly he would never have endorsed the revolutionary solution proposed by Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who counted Ellul as one of his most important influences. David Kaczynski, Ted’s brother, has said that Ted considered “The Technological Society” his “bible.” Several commentators, including the technophilic writer Kevin Kelly, author of “What Technology Wants,” have expressed surprise that the analysis of technology in the Unabomber’s manifesto is as insightful as it is, evidently not realizing the debt it owes to Ellul.
Ellul never advocated violence of any sort and rejected specific, programmatic solutions he felt would be fruitless. He did, however, endorse two more general antidotes to the technological dilemma. The first was faith. As pessimistic as his vision of technology often seemed, he asserted that there was always room for hope, even if it depended on the possibility of a miracle.
His second suggestion was to recognize as clearly as possible the character and temptations of technique and resist them. Technology moves forward because we let it, he believed, and we let it because we worship it. “Technology becomes our fate only when we treat it as sacred,” says Darrell J. Fasching, a professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of South Florida. “And we tend to do that a lot.”
An irony that hasn’t escaped those who will be attending this week’s conference is that the future of Ellul’s legacy now depends largely on technology. According to David Gill, founding president of the International Jacques Ellul Society and a professor of ethics at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., the society’s website now attracts hundreds of hits every day, far more than the number of people who subscribe to its journal.
“Ellul never opposed all participation in technology,” Gill says. “He didn’t live in the woods, he lived in a nice house with electric lights. He didn’t drive, but his wife did, and he rode in a car. But he knew how to create limits—he was able to say ‘no’ to technology. So using the Internet isn’t a contradiction. The point is that we have to say that there are limits.”
Doug Hill is a journalist who recently completed a book on the history and philosophy of technology. He earned a master’s degree in theological studies with a thesis on Jacques Ellul in 2004.