technology quotes: Jacques Ellul

Jacques Ellul wrote about a perceived takeover of humanity by technology in The Technological Societyway back in 1954. This book is still worth reading by anyone interested in the things that orthodox mass-media advertisements for progress don't tell us about technology, but you have to steel yourself for an uncompromising and bleak perspective. If you think of this book as a forecast of the late nineteen nineties, written by a visionary of the 1950s, it's more than enough to give you the willies.

It helps to understand that Ellul is talking about a way of thinking and doing that is necessary for what most of us think of as technology, but is invisible and not necessarily connected to machines. Technique, as Ellul describes it, applies to governments as well as artifacts. One brief definition and more information about technological determinism is quoted here: the ensemble of practices by which one uses available resources in order to achieve certain valued ends. The printing press is technique. Slavery is technique. The alphabet is technique. Government is technique. Steam power is technique. Ellul claims the key characteristics of technique are rationality, artificiality, automatism of technical choice, self-augmentation, monism, universalism, and autonomy.

He re-wrote and expanded The Technological Society into The Technological Bluff, published in 1990 by Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan.ISBN number 0-8028-3678-X.

In the modern world, the most dangerous form of determinism is the technological phenomenon. It is not a question of getting rid of it, but, by an act of freedom, of transcending it. How is this to be done? I do not yet know. That is why this book is an appeal to the individual's sense of responsibility. The first step in the quest, the first act of freedom, is to become aware of the necessity. The very fact that man can see, measure, and analyze the determinisms that press on him mean that he can face them and, by so doing, act as a free man. If man were to say: "These are not necessities; I am free because of technique, or despite technique," this would prove that he is totally determined. However, by grasping the real nature of the technological phenomenon, and the extent to which it is robbing him of freedom, he confronts the blind mechanisms as a conscious being. At the beginning of this foreword I stated that this book has a purpose. That purpose is to arouse the reader to an awareness of technological necessity and what it means. It is a call to the sleeper to awake.

What we are witnessing at the moment is a rearrangement of the world in an intermediate stage; the change is not in the use of a natural force but in the application of technique to all spheres of life.

Human life as a whole is not inundated by technique. It has room for activities that are not rationally or systematically ordered. But the collision between spontaneous activities and technique is catastrophic for the spontaneous activities.

The qualities which technique requires for its advance are precisely those characteristics of a technical order which do not represent indivisual intelligence...The individual, in order to make use of technical instruments, no longer needs to know about his civilization.

It is also held that technique could be directed toward that which is positive, constructive, and enriching, omitting that which is negative, destructive, and impoverishing. In demagogic formulations, techniques of peace must be developed and techniques of war rejected. In a less simple-minded version, it is held that means ought to be sought which palliate, without increasing the drawbacks of technique. Could not atomic engines and atomic power have been discovered without creating the bomb? To reason this is to separate technical elements with no justification. Techniques of peace and alongside them other and different techniques of war simply do not exist, despite what good folk think to the contrary.

It is the multiplication of men who are exluded from working which provokes war. We ought at least to bear this in mind when we boast of the continual decrease in human participation in technical operations.

Totalitarianism extends to whatever touches it...psychological technique, as it operates in the army or in a great industrial plant, entails a direct action on the family. It involves a psychological adaptation of family life to military or industrial methods, supervision of family life, and training family life for military or industrial service. Technique can leave nothing untouched in a civilization. Everything is its concern. Technique, which is destroying all other civilizations, is more than a simple mechanism: it's a whole civilization in itself.

On the contrary, social plasticity and a clear technical consciousness are the general terms which it forcibly imposes on every area of the world. It dissociates the sociological forms, destroys the moral framework, desacralizes men and things, explodes social and religious taboos, and reduces the body social to a collection of individuals. The most recent sociological studies (even those made by optimists) hold that technique is the destroyer of social groups, of communities (whatever their kind), and of human relations. Technical process causes the disappearance, as Jerome Scott and R.P. Lynton put it, of "that amalgam of attitudes, customs and social institutions which constitute a community." Communities break up into their component parts. But no new communities form.

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