Notes on The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul

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These are reflections and notes I write down when reading a book.

Before we begin, it’s important to define what technique means when Jacques Ellul talks about it, as it’s different from technology. Jacques Ellul defines it as: “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity”. Let us unpack. Technique is a set of methods which have these properties:

  1. They’re rational. The method is arrived at by logic and reason, and not through tradition or intuition.
  2. It is clear that the method is designed to be as efficient as possible,
  3. It is applied in all fields of human activity. Education, business, politics, engineering, social relations et cetera.

A classic example of such a set of methods is standardization in society. For example, standardized testing in schools is such an example of a method which contains all these points.

Overview ๐Ÿ”—

“The Technological Society” by Jacques Ellul argues that technique has become a dominant force in modern society, shaping and influencing all aspects of our lives. He believes that technique is a living organism that has its own logic and agenda that drives the way we live and think. Ellul writes that the technological society leads to a decrease in individual freedom and autonomy, as people are increasingly controlled and regulated by the technologies that dominate their lives. He argues that this has significant implications for the future of humanity, as the technological society is increasingly shaping our values and behaviors in ways that may not be in our best interests.

When Jacques Ellul says that technology is its own organism. It is not bound to ethical or moral considerations, making it potentially dangerous and unpredictable. I believe the main reason for this is that we rarely consider the ultimate goals or outcomes of our actions, focusing instead on iterating and constantly improving the methods or means. Without an end or goal in mind, the improved technique you build will be used for things which you have no control over. The classic response to this improved technique is that it’s up to the individual to control how it is being used, but Jacques Ellul refutes that because of the nature that technique is an arms race. For companies, further technical progress will improve the company’s profits/efficiency, and any competitor which does not follow and improve the technique will lag behind. Likewise, propaganda is an example of how technical progress is important for democratic states. If you do not employ the same technical progress for propaganda, you will lose out on reach and will not sway your voters to the same degree that people who use technique will.

It’s not obvious that the progress of technique is a problem at all when looking at it from a surface, but Jacques Ellul gives an example of how agricultural companies have started caring more for the soil due to the rapid depletion of it. As a result, environmentalists rejoice and all is well. However, the real care of this technological change in soil handling is not due to caring of the soil itself, but rather just for the agricultural yield. When looking at this, it’s easy to renounce the claim and say: “who cares about the real reason?”. This case shows just how technological progress has made the earth better, but it’s easy to consider a future case where it’s in the technique’s interest to exploit man and suppress his freedom. I believe that this claim is correct in a lot of ways — of course, it is easier for companies to make these changes where the product is net-good, such as restoring soil for further agricultural yield. While it is harder for companies to push for technological components which exploit man, it’s easy to see that more land is being taken as we go. An example that comes to mind is modern ad networks, which are directly exploiting and impacting man in deep ways. They do receive quite a lot of pushback from states, but even so, you can see that the land they take in time as a result of technological progress keeps growing.

Jacques Ellul claims that it is only the state that can reverse it. Companies that are focused on profits and minimizing costs are by definition subjugated to technique and standardization. Only the state can protect the individual freedom, and companies are not acting on these broader social issues.

Ellul makes it clear that it’s not a question about capitalism or communism – both economic systems utilize technical methods to a large extent. Communism potentially even more so from history.

Towards the end of the book, Ellul takes a stab and alludes to how it’s very hard to move the technological requirements in society. Proven earlier, he means that the state or companies make so much use of technique that they’re in no interest to abandon it. Companies in their search for profits and arms-racing each other, and states also in industrial yield but propaganda too. He quotes Goebbels: “you are at liberty to seek your own salvation as you understand it, provided you do nothing to change the social order”. He takes the quote to say that no publicist would publish a revolutionary book today, as it needs to appeal to the public, and to appeal to the public you may not attack any real taboos in society. In turn, because it is not possible to make any real impacting change in society on the technological progress, throughout time there’s been “outlets” to release this energy. Jazz music during the slave-era, but also religion. It’s a form of hopelessness – today people may hop on Twitter instead and feel like they’re making a change, while it’s mostly to console oneself. As Pat the Bunny once sang: “but if singing changed anything, they’d make it illegal”.

General notes ๐Ÿ”—

I believe the “The Technological Society” goes hand in hand with Christoffer Alexander’s book “The Timeless Way of Building” when it comes to architecture. Since the 1940s and the postwar baby boom, the concrete structural buldings have become increasingly popular with their little to none harmony to show for it. Houses for everyone, and for none.

A common critique of communism is how we’d get a lack of diversity; people would wear the same kind of clothes and their apartments would look the same. While it’s a slight ridiculous and straw man claim, I believe it’s an interesting tangent which Jacques Ellul makes that you can see the current standardization that we are all the same form of people. Children are educated to become exactly what society expects of them. It struck me to be interesting how people are structurally standardized in our society, but yet we value the diversification of goods high.