Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Technological Society

"But you, Daniel, close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge." – Daniel 12:4

Over the last couple weeks, I've been making my way through Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society. I'll confess that it hasn't been an enjoyable experience, for a variety of reasons. Apart from a few moving paragraphs, Ellul isn't much of a writer (though John Wilkinson's translation is more clear and idiomatic than most), and he belabors points ad nauseum. A good editor could easily have trimmed a quarter of the book's 400 page length. In addition, the topic is an uncomfortable one for someone like myself who is as fascinated by technology as Ellul is repulsed by it: when I disagree, it's annoying; when I'm reluctantly convinced, it's disturbing.

For those unfamiliar with Ellul's work, he starts by defining Technique as "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given state of development) in every field of human activity." That's fairly dense, but basically, he means something in-between "reason" and "technology". It's close to what we would call "processes and procedures" in business: it's the "one best way" to get something done.

From this starting point, Ellul's basic point is that Technique has taken over society to an unprecedented degree, and that this ongoing assimilation operates according to an internal logic which makes it unlikely to be halted or even mitigated. He claims to offer no opinion about whether this is a good thing or bad, but this claim is disingenuous: he clearly believes that this is a Very Bad Thing. C. S. Lewis frequently makes reference in his work to the "myth of progress", the idea that things will continuously and necessarily improve over time. Ellul believes more deeply in this myth than any other thinker I've encountered – except that the progress he believes will occur he also believes to be profoundly wrong.

There's no doubt that Ellul makes an impressive and sometimes a very disturbing case. He lays out an argument based partly on his understanding of the internal logic of Technique, and partly based on the facts, examples and analyses that were available to him as he was writing in the 1950's. Given that La Technique (its French title) is more than half a century old, and that he was explicitly trying to predict the future, it's disturbing how often he was right. The 24x7 police surveillance that he predicted is pretty much present reality in the UK, and nearly so in the US. The increasing damage to our environment he predicted industry would bring is proceeding apace, and in the case of global warming, is perhaps even more worrisome than he could have imagined. He predicted a globalized economy (pp. 78, 206) long before it existed in reality. He quite accurately describes a world which long ago moved past being infatuated with technology, and today veritably worships it. The shelves of many Apple and AT&T stores, currently bare of the 3G iPod, and the long lines at the rest, speak eloquently to this truth.

"All myths directly or indirectly go back to the myth of Paradise; and the technical productivity man is witnessing seems to have spurred a proliferation of myths. . . . [Technical] progress restores to man the supernatural world from which he had been severed, an incomprehensible world but one which he himself has made, a world full of promises that he knows can be realized and of which he is potentially the master. He is seized by sacred delirium when he sees the shining track of a supersonic jet or visualizes the vast granaries stocked for him. He projects this delirium into the myth through which he can control, explain, direct, and justify his actions." (p. 192)

That's as profound a description of our modern obsession with technology as I've seen.

Still, amongst all these impressive predictions, there are some howlers. His analysis of the various strengths and weaknesses of planned, market and mixed economies (pp. 149-218) has the singular disadvantage of having been proven badly wrong by actual events. He quotes with approval (pp. 81, 201) a fundamental Marxist critique of capitalism, that it inhibits technological development. For those who live in the age of Google and Moore's Law, this claim is nearly incomprehensible. Equally puzzling is the assertion (p. 175) that a planned economy is inherently more efficient than a market economy: our generation saw the Berlin Wall come down, and watched the shabby, threadbare East German economy limp, blinking, into the daylight. (Ellul eventually acknowledges, inconsistently, that private techniques are more efficient than those of the state [p. 248].) At one point, Ellul says, "The average man becomes the norm in the most liberal system in the world because only the products necessary to the average man are offered on the market." This may have been true in the 1950's, but hardly so in a New Economy dominated by eBay, Amazon and the Long Tail.

These mistakes don't necessarily disprove Ellul's central thesis (he seems to believe Marxist society will be worse because it will be more technologically advanced), but it does highlight limitations in his method. If his analysis of free-market economics was so misguided, it makes you think harder about his other claims.

Ellul is enlightening on certain issues, and downright prescient on others. At the moment, though, I'm more interested in figuring out where the weaknesses are in his book, and what accounts for them. I don't know that I can put my finger on them, but over the next couple days, I'll try to elaborate on them in a series of separate posts.

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