Book Review

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul

The Technological Society gives the reader insight into the emergent properties of our economic system. Without resorting to value-based language, or improbable conspiracy theories, or the existence of extraordinarily inhuman world leaders he explains the nature of our system based solely on individual people functioning out of motivation for their personal benefit within the constraints imposed on them by the economic environment they find themselves in. Jacques Ellul shows how the resulting system tends toward greater interdependence, the collective will imposing itself over the individual will, and the inevitable merger of all control agents (corporations, administrators, politicians, technicians) into a single technical totality. The entire book is an exposition of technique, the generalized character of the means to an end. It is the know-how, the application of knowledge for a purpose. The primary economic purpose of technique is to adapt the capricious and irrational nature of humans to the rational, linear, predictable nature of the machine, and to orchestrate that society to function like a machine. The application of knowledge (technique) is a normal human behavior, but it becomes the primary motive force of change in our world when it is coupled with machines, which through their access to non-sustainable energy sources have a functionally unlimited ability to multiply our labors, resulting in efficiency.

The human tendency towards efficiency has always existed; it represents our striving to get the largest benefit from the least amount of work. It can be called innate laziness. This is done through the application of planning, reason, and organization. “Work smarter, not harder.” The sudden applicability of science in the Industrial Revolution resulted in an exponential increase in the number of machines being built. Their ability to tap fossil fuels reinforced and amplified their production. Due to non-centralized resource and labor distribution, complex machines like the steam engine were most efficiently produced by many specialized industries. Thus the coordination of those many industries was essential to the success of the whole economy. In that situation technical standardization must be enforced by administrative organizations, i.e. the government (or unions, or corporations), whose scope encompasses the entire industrial complex, lest the entire production system collapse. To access the greatest general productivity the freedom of the production system must be reduced to its absolute most efficient form, “the one best way, that makes the most ‘sense,’” which is necessarily tin conflict with individual industries and individual workers. Ellul stresses that whether the regulating entity is capitalist, communist, socialist, fascist, or a corporate state, it has the same totalitarian effect on the individual caught in it.

The effect on us is especially dehumanizing because the production-consumption cycle functions more efficiently if the demand and/or production can be fixed, predicted, and/or manipulated. All three techniques then are used to their fullest capacity by the regulating bodies, and within each specific industry. Statistics are gathered, models are computed, and human techniques are implemented. These are directed at the individual’s life, leisure, body, and mind. Propaganda and regulatory laws are the primary human techniques, and like all techniques integrate successively into every aspect of the individual’s economic life. Propaganda can motivate people to buy commodities or products for which demand is lagging or doesn’t exist yet, thereby regulating the economy, or it can enrapture people to a state of war, and war in the technological society occurs for primarily economic purposes. Ellul speaks of total integration where the individual is the target of a barrage of coercive techniques (the most effective techniques are those unnoticed as such by the people under their influence) from all sides. Also, any individual technician can justify the invention and imposition of new human techniques because each technique does pragmatically function for the immediate benefit of individuals. Techniques make us temporarily more efficient of comfortable, but since the individual is subject to “beneficial” techniques from a multiplicity of technicians, and other forms of indirect economic persuasion, the system as a whole is totalitarian and compulsory to the individual. It is totalitarian as well, and can only become more so, for the only method of change is through technical means. No utopia or novel political-economic “solution” can be implemented unless it has a practical means of out-performing the current system. Agents of change are constrained not by the viability of their ideal but by their technical means of coming into existence (a revolutionary idea is limited not by its functionality, but by its ability to bring people into action). Thus the power-of-change will be successively consolidated into those agents that have the broadest access to the means of change. This is why the economic system tends towards totalitarianism. Ellul supports these statements with exhausting historical and contemporary facts and a thorough argument.

The Technological Society leaves the reader with an intense disappointment because Ellul makes it very clear that only technical solutions can be solutions to technical problems. He suggests that no ideology has any value until it applies itself. This is the core of the ethical problem activists meet everyday when faced with the problem of, “do the means justify the end, if they are in violation of the values of the end?” Ellul would suggest a dismal view that if your values are in violation of the most effective means of implementing them, then your values are doomed to impotence.

However, in a related essay, “Anarchy from a Christian Standpoint” Ellul gives the reader some hope for a way out of the technical complex. He suggests anarchy as a solution. He says anarchy is the only ideal that fully implies political-economic non-participation, a practical method of change, because it implies non-competition. He says he has no faith in a functional and stable anarchist society, but he agrees that if people were constantly striving towards one, the world would be a much better place.

I would like to note that, as many a reader has already guessed, the efficiency Ellul speaks of is not actual thermodynamic efficiency, but only a measure of human work in, versus human benefit out. The measurements do not take into account the actual production and maintenance costs of the technological society, namely the consumption of fossil fuels. Our machines are actually extraordinarily inefficient compared to biological systems, they just currently have access to a convenient but temporary non-biological energy source. If non-sustainable energy sources were eliminated or didn’t exist, then techniques would not create an inhuman and totalitarian system, it would reflect the control methods of ecological systems. That world would be tuned to perfectly adapt the human for the human’s sake, rather than adapting the human only for sake of the machine’s top performance.