Friday, February 15, 2013

Jacques Ellul, Technique, Efficiency & Materialism: The Disease of Modern Civilization

Book Review for The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul

I acquired a copy of Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society, translated by John Wilkinson (ISBN: 978-0-394-70390-9), a few months ago. Recently, I finished reading this monumental 473 page critique of technological civilization in its entirety (everything but the bibliography and index). It took me awhile to read it for two reasons: it is rather dull and I was reading it in my spare time (literally sitting in the car before work). The book was extremely interesting but rather dry in presentation. Jacques Ellul is no doubt an intriguing intellectual, but he is fairly lacking in the emotional expression of his personality and it really makes this book a flat read.

That said, I am rather impressed at the scope and depth of his argument against the course of civilization under the direction of blind materialistic efficiency. I am most certainly of the opinion, at this time, that this text is of enormous importance and can be a useful aid in many sociological, anthropological, politically philosophical and idealogical circles.

This book speaks to me because it puts into words some of the things I had noticed and was thinking, but couldn't quite pin down. One of the overarching points which Ellul seems to be getting at is that modern civilization, which has a pervasively materialist worldview, idolizes and gives priority to the value of efficiency, and that materialist based efficiency is cold, calculated, inhuman, and absolutely dangerous and destructive to both human happiness, the value of life, and the ecosystem.

Another major point is that of how man utilizes technique as a tool to ensure his survival, comfort, and evolution through the manipulation of his environment (physical, societal, and psychological) with various techniques. However, in doing so he must adapt to the tool and therefore becomes himself manipulated (physically, socially, and psychologically) by the conditions necessary for the most efficient use of that tool, which ultimately leads to a utilitarian development of personhood directed by massification and materialistic efficiency – man becomes a sort of robotic machine.

In layman's terms and in lay psyche that translates to Jacques Ellul brilliantly defines the coming new world order by examining technique and society. He tells you how the world works, why the world works the way it does, what the various parts of the world system are, some of the methods used within the world system, the historical development of the world system, where this new world system is headed, and even who controls this world system and how much power they have.

Ellul tells us that what are enslaved to the world system: "The 'all' is involved because technique yields results and demands efforts to such a degree that no individual can remain outside. But if technique demands the participation of everybody, this means that the individual is reduced to a few essential functions which make him a mass man. He remains 'free', but he can no longer escape being a part of the mass. Technical expansion requires the widest possible domain. In the near future not even the whole earth may be sufficient." (Jacques Ellul. The Technological Society, pg. 207). He tells us how we arrived in this situation and in the same breath hints at how might free ourselves: "But when the natural is intergrated, it ceases to be natural. It becomes part of the technical ensemble. It is an element of the mechanism, an element which must play its role, and no more." (Jacques Ellul. The Technological Society, pg. 217). Finally, he tells us who controls and shapes the world order: "...there is a limited elite that understands the secrets of their own techniques, but not necessarily of all techniques. These men are close to the seat of modern governmental power. The state is no longer founded on the 'average citizen', but on the ability and knowledge of this elite. The average man is altogether unable to penetrate technical secrets or governmental organization and consequently can exert no influence at all on the state." (Jacques Ellul. The Technological Society, pg. 274). He then concludes: "Technique shapes an aristocratic society, which in turn implies aristocratic government. Democracy in such a society can only be a mere appearance. Even now, we see in propaganda the premises of such a state of affairs. When it comes to state propaganda, there is no longer any question of democracy." (Jacques Ellul. The Technological Society, pg. 275)

I found the last statement striking as it was exactly what I had been thinking when I realized that the world order was designed by aristocrats, yet the common person thinks they can somehow have freedom within a system designed specifically by and for aristocracy merely by altering one or two key components (ie. the political or economic system). What ignorance! Such naivety amounts to believing that by replacing the umpire, switching ball fields, changing teams, or introducing a new ball or bat, it will somehow result in something other than a baseball game. It seems to me that if one honestly believes they can be free within a society based upon technique and materialistic efficiency they are either ignorant to reality or blatantly delusional. How can anyone expect to obtain a very human concept (freedom) from mechanized materialistic efficiency (the world system)? How can anyone conclude that a system designed to control will ever provide individual liberty? These are just a few thoughts this book brings to mind.

Now, this is where I may differ from others who happen to agree with Ellul's assessment, as I do. I do not believe technique or technology are themselves harmful to humanity, however I firmly believe that when humanity is excluded from the equation and all technique becomes founded upon materialism and efficiency it is utterly destructive to humankind and will eventually result in the total loss of all which can be described as human. I believe this is the danger which the technological society, as described by Jacques Ellul, presents to us all, and the very cause of this present darkness. The materialistic world view coupled with technological efficiency is a disease of modern civilization and a scourge upon the universe.

All in all, The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul is an excellent book which I feel should be required reading for any conscious person despite its dry presentation. The wealth of useful information which an individual can extract from this book makes it well worth the time and effort of reading this nearly 500 page text.

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