Imagine for a moment that pretty much everything you think about technology is wrong. That the devices you believed are your friends are in fact your enemies. That they are involved in a vast conspiracy to colonize your mind and steal your soul. That their ultimate aim is to turn you into one of them: a machine.
It’s a staple of science fiction plots, and perhaps the fever dream of anyone who’s struggled too long with a crashing computer.
But that nightmare vision is also a serious intellectual proposition, the legacy of a French social theorist who argued that the takeover by machines is actually happening, and that it’s much further along than we think. His name was Jacques Ellul, and a small but devoted group of followers consider him a genius.
To celebrate the centenary of his birth, a group of Ellul scholars will be gathering today at a conference to be held at Wheaton College near Chicago. The conference title: “Prophet in the Technological Wilderness.”
Ellul, who died in 1994, was the author of a series of books on the philosophy of technology, beginning with “The Technological Society,” published in France in 1954 and in English a decade later. His central argument is that we’re mistaken in thinking of technology as simply a bunch of different machines. In truth, Ellul contended, technology should be seen as a unified entity, an overwhelming force that has already escaped our control. That force is turning the world around us into something cold and mechanical, and—whether we realize it or not—transforming human beings along with it.
In an era of rampant technological enthusiasm, this is not a popular message, which is one reason Ellul isn’t well known. It doesn’t help that he refused to offer ready-made solutions for the problems he identified. His followers will tell you that neither of these things mean he wasn’t right; if nothing else, they say, Ellul provides one of the clearest existing analyses of what we’re up against. It’s not his fault it isn’t a pretty picture.
“He was a very stern thinker, and a very chilling thinker,” says Langdon Winner, a professor of the humanities and social sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “He wasn’t one of those people who say that everything will be OK if only the right side wins the next election.”
Ellul (pronounced a-lool) was a native of Bordeaux, France. His family suffered during the Depression, and Ellul worked with the French Resistance to protect Jews during World War II.
An admirer of Karl Marx’s sociological theories, Ellul came to believe that by the 20th century, the central issue facing industrialized societies had shifted from class struggle to technology—or, as he called it, “technique.” Ellul used this term to underscore his conviction that technology must be seen as a way of thinking as well as an ensemble of machines and machine systems. Technique includes the methods and strategies that drive the mechanical system, as well as the quantitative mentality that drives those methods.
The character of technique is ruthless, Ellul believed. It relentlessly and aggressively expands its range of influence. Its single overriding value is efficiency. Because human beings are hopelessly inefficient by technique’s exacting standards, they must be forced or seduced into conforming more precisely to its demands. This amounts to a fundamental degradation of the human spirit. “The combination of man and technique is a happy one only if man has no responsibility,” Ellul wrote. “Otherwise, he is ceaselessly tempted to make unpredictable choices and is susceptible to emotional motivations which invalidate the mathematical precision of the machinery.”
Ellul’s theories on technology were not embraced by the French intellectual establishment, in part because of he was consistently out of step with academic fashions. He spent his career at the University of Bordeaux as a professor of law and economics, with a special interest in the history of institutions. Orthodox Marxists didn’t buy idea that technology had superceded politics as the crucial issue of our time; according to Daniel Cérézuelle, who studied with Ellul and later worked as his teaching assistant, Ellul’s theories were actively ridiculed. It was in America during the 1960s that Ellul achieved his widest recognition, thanks in part to Robert McNamara’s technocratic prosecution of the Vietnam War.
Ellul was also unfashionable in intellectual circles because of his faith. A Protestant in the Reformed tradition, he was a prolific author of books on theology. For the most part, he kept his writings on religion separate from those on technology, though the forcefulness of Ellul’s critique of technology often retains, as Langdon Winner put it, the tenor of an Old Testament jeremiad. Here, for example, is a typical passage from “The Technological Society”:Continued...