Ellul (1964). Chapter 1 – Techniques. (The Technological Society.)

Ellul, J. (1964). Chapter 1 – Techniques. In The Technological Society (pp. 3–60). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

[We conform to the equipment …]

“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. … 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.” (p 4)

[Technique as a lens …]

“… technique transforms everything it touches into a machine.” (p 4)

[Machines are dehumanizing …]

“It is useless to rail against capitalism. Capitalism did not create our world; the machine did. … ‘The machine is antisocial,’ says Lewis Mumford. ‘It tends, by reason of its progressive character, to the most acute forms of human exploitation.'” (p 5)

[Technique integrates machines into society; bridge between tools and their application …]

“The machine could not integrate itself into nineteenth-century society; technique integrated it.” (p 5)

[Discovery and application without regard for consequences …]

“As soon as a discovery is made, a concrete application is sought. Capital becomes interested, or the state, and the discovery enters the public domain before anyone has had a chance to reckon all the consequences or to recognize its full import. … ‘Even science, especially the magnificent science of our own day, has become an element of technique, a mere means’ (Mauss).” (p 10)

[Key to technique is organization and arrangement of its tools …]

“… the most important feature of techniques today is that they do not depend on manual labor but on organization and on the arrangement of machines.” (p 14)

[Technical processes without connection to social histories …]

“Technique has become autonomous; it has fashioned an omnivorous world which obeys its own laws and which has renounced all tradition. Technique no longer rests on tradition, but rather on previous technical procedures; and its evolution is too rapid, too upsetting, to integrate the older traditions.” (p 14)

[Economic metric is produced as though it were the only metric of value …]

“But in the second paragraph, without warning, he begins to reduce everything to the level of economic production.

“What gives rise to this limitation of the problem? One factor might be a tacit optimism, a need to hold that technical progress is unconditionally valid — which leads to the selection of the most positive aspect of technical progress, as though it were its only one.” (p 17)

[Technique is valued more than its results …]

“Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means; in the reality of modern life, the means, it would seem, are more important than the ends.” (p 19)

[Efficiency as an outcome …]

“However, what characterizes technical action within a particular activity is the search for greater efficiency. Completely natural and spontaneous effort is replaced by a complex of acts designed to improve, say, the yield. It is this which prompts the creation of technical forms, starting from simple forms of activity.” (p 20)

[Artifacts dissociated from any natural provenance …]

“Reason makes it possible to produce objects in terms of certain features, certain abstract requirements; and this in turn leads, not to the imitation of nature, but to the ways of technique.” (p 20)

[Reason becomes limited to a solitary pursuit …]

“Reason … notes what every means devised is capable of accomplishing and selects from the various means at its disposal with a view to securing the ones that are the most efficient, the best adapted to the desired end. Thus the multiplicity of means is reduced to one: the most efficient. And here reason appears clearly in the guise of technique.” (p 21)

[Quantitative assessments of efficiency versus any qualitative considerations …]

“The technical phenomenon is the main preoccupation of our time; in every field men seek to find the most efficient method. But our investigations have reached a limit. It is no longer the best relative means which counts, as compared to other means also in use. The choice is less and less a subjective one among several means which are potentially applicable. It is really a question of finding the best means in the absolute sense, on the basis of numerical calculation.” (p 21)

[Magic produced an illusion …]

“Masson-Oursel rightly believes that magic preceded technique — in fact, that magic is the first expression of technique.” (p 25)

[Societies vying for their own technical processes, versus alien ones …]

“… in relation to purely material factors, it has been demonstrated that every milieu resists imitating the techniques of another social or ethnic group. Surely, this resistance was much stronger in the realm of magical techniques. Here were all the taboos and prohibitions, the im- [page break] mense strength of magical conservatism.” (p 25-26)

[Rejection of technique in favour of mastery of one’s self …]

“The Greeks were suspicious of technical activity because it represented an aspect of brute force and implied a want of moderation. Man, however humble his technical equipment, has from the very beginning played the role of sorcerer’s apprentice in relation to the machine. This feeling on the part of the Greeks was not a reflection of a primitive man’s fear in the face of something he does not understand (the explanation given today when certain persons take fright at our techniques). Rather, it was the result, perfectly mastered and perfectly measured, of a certain conception of life. It represented an apex of civilization and intelligence.

“Here we find the supreme Greek virtue, έγράτεια (self-control). The rejection of technique was a deliberate, positive activity involving self-mastery, recognition of destiny, and the application of a given conception of life.” (p 29)

[Note: έγράτεια (égráteia) means ‘writing,’ not self-control. The correct spelling in Greek would be εγκράτεια (enkráteia), meaning temperance or self-restraint. It is considered one of the four cardinal Greek virtues. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enkrateia.]

[Technical process obscures its dangers, it stands in opposition of balance …]

“The great preoccupation of the Greeks was balance, harmony and moderation; hence, they fiercely resisted the unrestrained force inherent in technique, and rejected it because of its potentialities.” (p 29)

[Christianity, nature, and the supernatural …]

“… antiquity was possessed of a holy fear of nature, and dared not lay hand on the secrets which to the ancients were gods. They dared not make use of natural forces, which for them were supernatural. [page break] Christianity secularized nature: with Christianity nature once again became simply nature and no one scrupled to exploit it. Unfortunately, however, neither of these arguments is quite accurate.” (p 35-36)

[The natural world and the origins of magic and its forces …]

“It is true that Christianity secularized nature. But did this benefit technique? We have noted, in passing, the religious origin of many forms of technique; indeed, nature, as the theater of spiritual forces, gives rise to one particular technique already mentioned: magic.” (p 36)

[Christianity more concerned with eschatology and individual spiritual salvation …]

“On the moral plane, Christianity condemned luxury and money — in short, everything that represented the earthly city, which was consecrated to Satan and opposed to the City of God. This was the era of the anchorite, of the renunciation of city life, of cenobitism presented as an ideal. The tendency was toward the restriction of economic life. On the theological plane, there was the conviction that the world was approaching its end, that it was useless to strive to develop or cultivate it, for the Lord was soon to return. It was wiser to be concerned with eschatology than with worldly affairs.” (p 37)

[A careful approach once used …]

“When an element of technique appeared to be righteous from _every_ point of view, it was adopted, but even then with excessive caution.” (p 37)

[No division yet between various sciences or arts …]

“In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries every intellectual had perforce to be a universalist.” (p 40)

[Books as vanity projects …]

“This explains another characteristic of the books written after the century of humanism: their lack of convenience. We find few tables of contents, no references, no division into sections, no indices, no chronology, sometimes not even pagination.” (p 40)

[Mumford looks at machines in absence of social interactions …]

“Mumford’s thesis is incomprehensible unless _technique_ is restricted to the _machine_; Mumford actually makes this identification. His distinction is then valid as a plan for the historical study of machines, but it is totally invalid for the study of technical civilization.” (p 42)

[Influence on legal systems; efficiency and the state …]

“From the judicial point of view, the technical revolution entailed the great systematization of law in the Napoleonic codes and the definitive suppression of spontaneous sources of law; for example, custom. It involved the unification of legal institutions under the iron rule of the state and the submission of law to policy. And throughout Europe, except in Great Britain, the nations, amazed by such an efficient operation, abandoned their traditional judicial systems in favor of the state.” (p 43)

[Technique as mastery of the world through reason …]

“… it might be said that technique is the translation into action of man’s concern to master things by means of reason, to account for what is subconscious, make quantitative what is qualitative, make clear and precise the outlines of nature, take hold of chaos and put order into it.” (p 43)

[Science for its own sake …]

“What distinguishes the eighteenth century is that applications were made for reasons of utility; soon the only justification of science was applicability.” (p 46)

[Conditions that allowed technique to flourish suddenly in the 19th century; effects on civilization …]

“How, then, are we to explain the sudden blossoming of technique in the nineteenth century? (The eighteenth century was only the preliminary phase of technical application; the nineteenth century is the really interesting period.) I feel that this transformation of civilization can be explained by the conjunction in time of five phenomena: the fruition of a long technical experience; population expansion; the suitability of the economic environment; the plasticity of the social milieu; and the appearance of a clear technical intention.” (p 47)

[Technical complex as the assemblage of small inventions into a powerful whole …]

“What appears to be genuinely new is the formation of a ‘technical complex,’ which, according to Mumford, consists of a series of partial inventions that combine into an ensemble.” (p 47)

[Social mores and structures eradicated …]

“The fourth condition is possibly the most decisive. It is the plasticity of the social milieu, which involves two factors; the disappearance of social taboos and the disappearance of natural social groups.” (p 49)

[Benefits of a balanced social order; their loss; and loss of understanding such balance …]

“The individual found livelihood, patronage, security, and intellectual and moral satisfactions in collectives that were strong enough to answer all his needs but limited enough not to make him feel submerged or lost. They sufficed to satisfy the average man who does not try to gratify imaginary needs if his position is fairly stable, who opposes innovation if he lives in a balanced milieu, even though he is poor. This fact, which is so salient in the three millennia of history we know, is misunderstood by modern man, who does not know what a balanced social environment is and the good he could derive from it.” (p 50)

[Individual became paramount versus social groups which provided balance and support …]

“… a systematic campaign was waged against all natural groups, under the guise of a defense of the rights of the individual. … There was to be no liberty of groups, only that of the individual. … Society was already atomized and would be atomized more and more. The individual remained the sole sociological unit, but, far from assuring him freedom, this fact provoked the worst kind of slavery.” (p 51)

[Human isolation creates conditions for exploitation in service to machines …]

“To uproot men from their surroundings, from the rural districts and from family and friends, in order to crowd them into cities still too small for them; to squeeze thousands into unfit lodgings and unhealthy places of work; to create a whole new environment within the framework of a new human condition (it is too often overlooked that the proletariat is the creation of the industrial machine) — all this was possible only when the individual was completely isolated.” (p 51)

[Once separated from traditional groups, individuals only have the state to look to …]

“For the individual in an atomized society, only the state was left: the state was the highest authority and it became omnipotent as well.” (p 51)

[Capital has great interest in technical process, versus interests of individuals. (cf. NY Times, Jan 25, 2019, re WEF in Davos https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/25/technology/automation-davos-world-economic-forum.html) …]

“In fact, the _bourgeoisie_ has always been more or less involved with technique. … This class put the interests of technique before the interests of individuals, who had to be sacrificed in order that technique might progress. It is solely because the _bourgeoisie_ made money, thanks to technique, that technique became one of their objectives.” (p 53)

[Gaining control of educational agendas …]

“Moreover, the _bourgeoisie_ were so well aware of the relation between economic success and the scientific foundations of that success that they kept in their own hands, almost as a monopoly, the instruction which was the only means of access to the great schools and faculties that trained the technicians of science and the technicians of society.” (p 54)

[Religious zealotry driving the global exploitation …]

“The Puritans, even after their political failure, were the predominant influence. In keeping with the trend the Reformation set, they exploded all prevailing religious taboos and developed a practical and utilitarian mentality that emphasized the use and even the exploitation of the good things of this world given by God to men.” (p 56)

[The masses were indoctrinated to the salvation offered through technique …]

“The plasticity we refer to came about in England as a result of this evolution in the use of land, which furnished the technical movement with the necessary manpower: apathetic, vacant, and uprooted. Not only was this manpower necessary for the development of industry; the masses thus created were indispensable to faith in techniques and the spread of techniques.” (p 57)

[Technique is not an island …]

“… only application counts in the rise of technique.” (p 59)

Selected References

  • Mauss, Marcel: Sociologie et anthropologie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France; 1949-1950.
  • Mumford, Lewis: The Culture of Cities. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company; 1938.
  • Mumford, Lewis: Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company; 1934.
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