Jacques Ellul, Technology Doomsdayer Before his Time

Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul has been on my mind lately, so this Boston Globe story on the man is well timed:

An admirer of Karl Marx’s sociological theories, Ellul came to believe that by the 20th century, the central issue facing industrialized societies had shifted from class struggle to technology—or, as he called it, “technique.” Ellul used this term to underscore his conviction that technology must be seen as a way of thinking as well as an ensemble of machines and machine systems. Technique includes the methods and strategies that drive the mechanical system, as well as the quantitative mentality that drives those methods.

The character of technique is ruthless, Ellul believed. It relentlessly and aggressively expands its range of influence. Its single overriding value is efficiency. Because human beings are hopelessly inefficient by technique’s exacting standards, they must be forced or seduced into conforming more precisely to its demands. This amounts to a fundamental degradation of the human spirit. “The combination of man and technique is a happy one only if man has no responsibility,” Ellul wrote. “Otherwise, he is ceaselessly tempted to make unpredictable choices and is susceptible to emotional motivations which invalidate the mathematical precision of the machinery.”

Full Story: Boston Globe: Jacques Ellul, technology doomsdayer before his time

Ellul also wrote on propaganda.

See also: Abe Burmeister on being a hypocritical luddite (a position I’ve come to embrace myself).

6 Comments

  1. It’s always great to see anything written about Ellul and his ideas as it is bound to spark some essential debate about life in a society dominated by technology. But, I would debate whether “doomsayer” is fair and accurate way to assess the man or what he was really saying. Rather than clarify why his ideas are just as vital today as ever and showing that there is much more to the human-computer equation, it only makes it easier to write him off as a novel oddity.

    If this article was intended to show that Ellul was a brave visionary who’s ideas were rejected and ridiculed for all the wrong reasons, which I believe it was, then calling him a “doomsayer before his time’ only helps to further the issue that most people who are caught up in, and whose livelihoods depend on, a technological system, are unwilling to ask the tough questions that are most needed if we want to maximize what is left of our humanity.

    As a common blanket generalization, pegging him a “doomsayer” provides a overly-simplistic way of getting a handle on him (which in this age of sensationalized journalism, a by-product of “the attention economy,” itself a prickly by-product of techno-society may be condoned), but it does the deeper technological debate, which is a complex thing, a disservice. Ellul and his ideas were anything but common, and there are many subtle areas involved that are worthy of serious consideration. Branding his life work as “doomsaying” only polarizes, belittling what is at stake and all the good things that can be gained. It makes the necessary work of looking at the downside of anything as nothing more than some pessimistic obsession reserved for “crazies” like the Unabomber. Certainly, well-adjusted civilized people in a world that puts anyone doing anything remotely interesting with technology on the front-page as some kind of 21st century rock star would find such inquiry total blasphemy and simply move on to the next email.

  2. With that said, perhaps the better headline would have been: Jacques Ellul, “technology doomsdayer” before his time.

  3. On a related note, please see my post “20 Provocative Books on Technology”: http://socialengagementlab.tumblr.com/post/26784682350/20techbooks

    • I just experienced an odd bit of cognitive dissonance by being disappointed that *The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism: Heidegger, Marx, Nietzsche* isn’t available as a Kindle book.

  4. Friedrich Kittler

    July 19, 2012 at 12:16 am

    The link to the Boston Globe article is missing. It’s here.

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