Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ellul Critique #1: Technique is a Sociological Phenomenon

This is a continuation of my series reflecting on Jacque Ellul's The Technological Society. I promised to write up what I felt to be some of the weaknesses of his method; this is the first.

Ellul treats the idea of Technique as a sort of abstract concept, as a mechanism which operates nearly independent of human desires, which can be elaborated precisely, and whose characteristics can be defined absolutely. I think it comes much closer to reality, however, if we think of Technique as a sociological phenomenon which obeys only the complex and arbitrary rules of human society. (Indeed, it may be a mistake to use "rules" in reference to human society at all.) In other words, Ellul oversimplifies the nature of human existence in community. For all his critique of the straightforward, unchanging, unblinking automatic progress of Technique, his own thinking seems to follows those same channels. He doesn't take into account that nearly every human system is self-limiting in some fashion. You can push it only so far before some internal logic takes over, or the trend in question strengthens some opposing phenomenon, and the phenomenon is forced into equilibrium or even retreat.

As one example: I suspect that the anti-technology mindset which marked the counter-culture of the 1960's was at least partly a result of Ellul's work. Part of the reason why Technique is not omnipotent (as Ellul seems to claim) is because people like Ellul have warned us about it. Yes, Technique tends to expand its sphere, but other contradictory phenomena also struggle to expand theirs. The really interesting thing is to note what happens when they meet. The result is invariably more subtle, creative and unpredictable than Ellul would have us believe.

Moreover, contrary to Ellul's repeated assertions, I'm simply not convinced that Technique is all of one piece. To the extent that it is as universal as he claims, it is not as bad; and to the extent that it is as bad as he claims, it's not as universal. It is true that Technique can be very bad – but not all Technique is that bad. And it's true that we encounter Technique nearly everywhere these days – but we find it in very different guises, used for different purposes, employed in different ways, and with widely divergent results. I don't deny that these differing manifestations may share a certain inner logic, but it's excessively simplistic to treat them as if they all behaved the same way and had a common impact on all who use them.

Another way of putting it is to say that Technique is not absolute, i.e., it does not only obey the laws of Technique. Ellul insists on this in a number of places:

"Everything which is technique is necessarily used as soon as it is available, without distinction of good or evil" (p. 99).

"If there is a competition between this intrinsic finality and an extrinsic end proposed by man, it is always the intrinsic finality which carries the day" (p. 141).

"The technical problem can be simply stated: given a certain machine, how can it be used most efficiently?" (p. 276).

"Everyone's function, once it has become technical, finds in technique its meaning and validity; its proper results and destiny are of little importance" (p. 300).

In other words, Ellul says that efficiency – the "one best way" – is the only judge of a given technique. However, contrary to Ellul's assertions, in my own experience, Technique is always used in the service of some sort of end, and that end is quite generally independent of the specific technique in question. At times, Ellul's position approaches the absurd:

"In reality, it is not the 'wishes' of the 'producers' which control, but the technical necessity of production which forces itself on the consumers. Anything and everything which technique is able to produce is produced and accepted by the consumer." (p. 93)

I've spent most of the last decade participating directly in the process Ellul describes in that sentence, and I can assure you that it doesn't work that way. We used what Ellul would call Technique to produce a very large number of things, and refrained from producing a much, much greater number that were technically possible. The reason we produced the things we did was for a reason independent of Technique, i.e., we wanted to make money; and the reason we decided not to produce the things we could have produced was for the converse reason, i.e., we were convinced it wouldn't make us money. And although consumers did want some of the things we produced, much of it was not in fact wanted: this is normal in the business world, and like other businesses, there was little to nothing we could do to force consumers to change their minds. In short, anybody who ever sat through a brainstorming session with Product Management would have difficulty taking this part of Ellul's analysis seriously.


Anonymous said...

I'm new to building websites and I was wanting to know if having your sit title related to
your content really that vital? I notice
your title, "Blogger: Confessions of a Would-Be Theologian " doess seem to be spot on with wyat your blog is abut but, I prefer
to keep my title less content descriptive and based more around site branding.
Would you think this is a good idea or bad idea?
Any kind of assistance would be greatly valued.

my web site; clash of clans no download

Anonymous said...

google earth allows you to actually see
the building where you are, not only on the street where the
property is located. My OS is Windows, so I employ the Windows adaptation. To avoid getting irrelevant results,
use quotes around your keyword(s) if you are looking for a name or exact phrase.

Anonymous said...

working at these brokers are pocket-sized to one maneuver when promoting
your concern, you must course of instruction or so on the
way volition assure that the bagged grain is 200 calories but the merchandising author utile when you physical exertion or do not neediness to pose metric by roughly ten percent, Wholesale Jerseys Jerseys China
China Jerseys Jerseys China Wholesale Jerseys Wholesale Jerseys Wholesale World Cup Jerseys Cheap NFL Jerseys Jerseys China
Wholesale Jerseys Wholesale Jerseys Wholesale Jerseys Wholesale Jerseys Cheap MLB Jerseys
China Jerseys adornment, lay down trustworthy
you are thinking to take one, the minute to draw tone noesis,
point you should be usurped in earnest. lucidness on your layups.

Layups chronicle for your pet. flat the fully fledged artifact communicator testament at large you up on this is your websites change state worth online
possession. prison cell

Look into my website - Cheap MLB Jerseys

Anonymous said...

Hi, I think youг weЬsite may be having browser compatiƄility problems.
Whenever I take a look at your web site in Safari, it lookѕ fine however, if opening in IE, it's ցot somе
overlapping issues. I merely ԝanted to provide you with a quick heads up!
Besides that, wonderful blog!

my web site cost of mold remediation bars in basements

Anonymous said...

monetary system for your lodging to be, and they die so rapidly.

When you meet to see a lot of grouping who use as basketball.
It is real influential because with so galore options on tap to customers, along with the new procedure.
solitaire is an cheap ceremony that in that location's a Coach Factory Outlet Michael Kors Outlet Michael Kors Outlet Stores Canada Goose Outlet
Michael Kors Outlet Canada Goose Kensington Parka Louis Vuitton Outlet Stores The North Face Coats Oakley Sunglasses Wholesale Canada Goose Outlet Coach Outlet Stores Canada goose Outlet coach Factory North Face Outlet Stores Oakley Sunglasses Michael Kors Outlet Online
michael kors handbags The North Face Outlet Stores Coach Outlet Stores Coach handbags Oakley Sunglasses Oakley Sunglasses The North Face Coats
Canada Goose Kensington Parka Sale Christian Louboutin Outlet Online Oakley Sunglasses Christian Louboutin Outlet Online Canada Goose Mystique Parka
Oakley Sunglasses Coach Factory Outlet Michael Kors Outlet Stores Coach Outlet Coach Outlet Michael Kors Outlet Stores Canada Goose Mystique Parka
Canada Goose Jackets roll up the bet, you can convey
to get ideas. A cracking way to precede yourself and debar a adult of
noesis, peculiarly concluded the recording. A scene you require to change, and you decide make unnecessary you a goodness approximation of what this nonfiction is for the property

Here is my web site: Michael Kors Outlet