The consoling hum of technological society
by Ken Myers
On Volume 120 of the Journal, I talked with theologian Jonathan Wilson about his book, God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation (BakerAcademic, 2013). Early in the book, Wilson refers to Jacques Ellul’s prescient and seminal book, The Technological Society, published in French in 1954, and released in English in 1964. Wilson contrasts two ways of knowing Creation. We can approach Creation, says Jonathan Wilson, from the standpoint of wisdom, or from the standpoint of techne. Wilson uses the Greek word to highlight, as did Ellul, the fact that the spirit of modern technology isn’t just an assembly of gadgets and devices, but something more like a principality or power. This techne, writes Wilson, “seduces us into thinking that it is something we can control and by which we can also control our world. Techne, in Ellul’s prophetic unveiling, is a false god that drains life from us by weaving a lie about the world and life. Techne, by virtue of its practical atheism, requires that humans master their world. There is no God to trust with that which we cannot understand, or, understanding, that which we cannot control or predict. And so we are driven to eradicate mystery, and by doing so we embrace a withered portrayal of life.”
Here are several of the opening paragraphs in Ellul’s book:
“Whenever we see the word technology or technique, we automatically think of machines. Indeed, we commonly think of our world as a world of machines. This notion . . . arises from the fact that the machine is the most obvious, massive, and impressive example of technique, and historically the first. What is called the history of technique usually amounts to no more than a history of the machine; this very formulation is an example of the habit of intellectuals of regarding forms of the present as identical with those of the past.
“Technique certainly began with the machine. It is quite true that all the rest developed out of mechanics; it is quite true also that without the machine the world of technique would not exist. But to explain the situation in this way does not at all legitimatize it. It is a mistake to continue with this confusion of terms, the more so because it leads to the idea that, because the machine is at the origin and center of the technical problem, one is dealing with the whole problem when one deals with the machine. And that is a greater mistake still. Technique has now become almost completely independent of the machine, which has lagged far behind its offspring.
“It must be emphasized that, at present, technique is applied outside industrial life. The growth of its power today has no relation to the growing use of the machine. The balance seems rather to have shifted to the other side. It is the machine which is now entirely dependent upon technique, and the machine represents only a small part of technique. If we were to characterize the relations between technique and the machine today, we could say not only that the machine is the result of a certain technique, but also that its social and economic applications are made possible by other technical advances. The machine is now not even the most important aspect of technique (though it is perhaps the most spectacular); technique has taken over all of man’s activities, not just his productive activity.
“From another point of view, however, the machine is deeply symptomatic: it represents the ideal toward which technique strives. The machine is solely, exclusively, technique; it is pure technique, one might say. For, wherever a technical factor exists, it results, almost inevitably, in mechanization: technique transforms everything it touches into a machine.…
"Technique integrates everything. It avoids shock and sensational events. Man is not adapted to a world of steel; technique adapts him to it. It changes the arrangement of this blind world so that man can be a part of it without colliding with its rough edges, without the anguish of being delivered up to the inhuman. Technique thus provides a model; it specifies attitudes that are valid once and for all. The anxiety aroused in man by the turbulence of the machine is soothed by the consoling hum of a unified society.
“As long as technique was represented exclusively by the machine, it was possible to speak of ‘man and the machine.’ The machine remained an external object, and man (though significantly influenced by it in his professional, private, and psychic life) remained nonetheless independent. He was in a position to assert himself apart from the machine; he was able to adopt a position with respect to it.
“But when technique enters into every area of life, including the human, it ceases to be external to man and becomes his very substance. It is no longer face to face with man but is integrated with him, and it progressively absorbs him. In this respect, technique is radically different from the machine. This transformation, so obvious in modern society, is the result of the fact that technique has become autonomous.”
— From Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (Alfred A. Knopf, 1964). This work was originally published in French as La Technique ou l’enjeu du siècle in 1954.