One of the most thoughtful philosophers to approach technology from a deterministic, and some have even argued fatalistic , position is Jacques Ellul. Professor at the University of Bordeaux, Ellul authored some 40 books and hundreds of articles over his lifetime , the dominant theme of which has been, according to Fasching (1981), "the threat to human freedom and Christian faith created by modern technology" (p. 1). Ellul's constant theme has been one of technological tyranny over humanity. As a philosopher and theologian , Ellul explored the religiosity of the technological society.
Ellul became a Marxist at age 19, and a Christian at 22 (Fasching, p. 2). His religious faith evolved out of the Death of God movement and the response of the neo-orthodox theologians Bultmann, Barth, Niebuhr and Tillich. According to Fasching, the Barthian dialectic, in which the gospel both judges and renews the world, helped to shape Ellul's theological perspective (p. 7). For Ellul, "that which desacralizes a given reality, itself in turn becomes the new sacred reality" (p. 35).
The sacred is then, as classically defined, the object of both hope and fear, both fascination and dread. Once nature was the all-encompassing environment and power upon which human beings were dependent in life and death and so was experienced as sacred. (Fasching, p. 34).
In support of his theory, Fasching offered the following examples. Christianity desacralized nature, after which Christianity became sacred. The Reformation desacralized the church in the name of the bible, and the Bible became the sacred book. Science and reason desacralized the scriptures, and since that time Science has become sacred. Today, argued Ellul, it is the technological society that we hold sacred.
Ellul (1964) defined technique as "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity" (p. xxv). According to Fasching (1981) "It is not the society of machines but the society of efficient techniques which is the focus of Ellul's sociological analysis" (p. 15). "Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity" (p. 17).
It is useless to think that a distinction can be made between technique and its use, says Ellul, for techniques have specific social and psychological consequences independent of our desires. There can be no room for moral considerations in their use. "Not even the moral conversion of the technicians could make a difference. At best, they would cease to be good technicians." In the end, technique has only one principle, "efficient ordering." (p. 18)
The Technological Society
What many consider to be Ellul's most important work, The Technological Society (1964) was originally titled: La Technique: L'enjen du siècle, "the stake of the century." In it, Ellul set forth seven characteristics of modern technology.
The characteristics of technique which serve to make efficiency a necessity are rationality, artificiality, automatism of technical choice, self-augmentation, monism, universalism, and autonomy. The rationality of technique enforces logical and mechanical organization through division of labor, the setting of production standard, etc. And it creates an artificial system which "eliminates or subordinates the natural world." (Fasching, p. 17)
What I Believe
In What I Believe, Ellul set forth his position on a number of theological and sociological issues. Chapters nine through eleven deal again with the issue of technology. According to Ellul, technology is "progressively effacing the two previous environments"; nature and society (Ellul, 1989, p. 134). Ellul defined an environment as that which, "enables us to live, it sets us in danger, it is immediate to us, and it mediates all else" (p. 133). In support, Ellul argued that we cannot live without our gadgets. At the same time, we are put at risk by our technology and its hazardous consequences. Not only are we surrounded by technology, but our primary means of communication are mediated by technology.
Instead of technology being subservient to humanity, "human beings have to adapt to it and accept total change" (p. 136). As an example, Ellul offered the diminished value of the humanities to a technological society. As people begin to question the value of learning ancient languages and history, they question those things which, on the surface, do little to advance their financial and technical state. According to Ellul, this misplaced emphasis is one of the problems with modern education.
This is why there is such an incredible stress on information in our schools. The important thing is to prepare young people to enter the world of information, able to handle computers, but knowing only the reasoning, the language, the combinations, and the connections between computers. This movement is invading the whole intellectual domain and also that of conscience. (p. 136)
Ellul's commitment to scrutinize technological development is expressed in his close to this chapter.
...what is at issue here is evaluating the danger of what might happen to our humanity in the present half-century, and distinguishing between what we want to keep and what we are ready to lose, between what we can welcome as legitimate human development and what we should reject with our last ounce of strength as dehumanization. I cannot think that choices of this kind are unimportant. p. 140
Ellul saw the power of the media as another example of technology exerting control over human destiny. As a mechanism of change, the media are too easily manipulated for the service of special interests. Using the term propaganda to address both political and commercial communication, Ellul wrote:
It is the emergence of mass media which makes possible the use of propaganda techniques on a societal scale. The orchestration of press, radio and television to create a continuous, lasting and total environment renders the influence of propaganda virtually unnoticed precisely because it creates a constant environment. Mass media provides the essential link between the individual and the demands of the technological society. (1964, p. 22)
In all of this Ellul continued to place his understanding of technology and its proper role in this present society in a context that recognizes a faith in the eternal. Mitcham (1994) posits that his vantage point allowed Ellul to "propose a more explicit alternative to the technology of the technician" (p. 61) than those provided by some of his contemporaries, e.g., Heidegger.
To throw this wager or secular faith into the boldest possible relief, Ellul places it in dialectical contrast with biblical faith. As a dialectical contrast to La Technique, for instance, Ellul writes Sans feu ni lieu (1975, although written much earlier). Whereas technology is the attempt of human beings to create their home in this world, the Bible denies that they are truly at home here. (p. 60)
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