The Technological Society

by Jacques Ellul

a review by David S. Gallinat


Introduction

  In The Technological Society Ellul describes what he feels to be the new driving force of the modern world. Written in 1964, Ellul attempts to define the technological society of tomorrow as a world driven by, what he calls, techniques. The simplest definition of the term is: methods having absolute efficiency in every application field (xxv).

  Ellul's dyshoric view, or analysis, of the techniques is emphasized by his focus on the decline of morals due to these techniques, and technology. Ellul also concentrates on the consequences of having societyinvaded by technology. Specifically, Ellul focuses on the relationship between techniques (technology), and the Economy, the State, and humans. First, however, Ellul describes techniques in general and their characteristics.


Summary

Techniques

  According to Ellul in this first chapter, the machine created our world. In other words society reacts to technology. This does not mean that the machine creates technology, however, since the machine itself is a product of technology. All this means is, techniques no longer follow "tradition", instead they rest on previous technical procedures that leave traditions behind. Ellul also states that the evolution of the techniques is so rapid that, the traditions just cannot be integrated.

  In relation to the worker, Ellul sees an even bigger consequence of technology. Because of the rapid change in techniques, the "the technical operation still occurrs on the same level as that of the worker who does the work" (20). This is easy to understand; technology develops too fast for the worker to keep up-to-date.

  Overall, Ellul describes the general consequences of technology in this chapter. In later chapters he will discuss specific consequences as related to important parts of the society.

The Characterology of Technique

  In this chapter Ellul focuses on the relationships between techniques and society, and how the techniques have altered the characteristics of those relationships.

  According to Ellul, technology derives from the same means, both past and present. However, there are characteristics of the development. They are:  

  • only the characteristics of the technology changes, as well as;  
  • the characteristics of the relationships between technology and society;  
  • society changes to fit technology;  
  • we cannot see society's future. (63)

      Techniques are developed to make life easier, and because of this, technology has made "comfort, rest, and physical euphoria" possible. (66) Technology has turned work into a virtue, instead of a punishment as it used to be considered. Also, the search for tools to simplify the job has replaced the desire for increased skill. (68) In other words, in the past the worker could compensate for the tools, but presently the deficiency of workers is evident.

    Technique and Economy

      This chapter can be summed up in one statement; "technology is the motive force and the foundation of the economy". (149) But the topic is much deeper than that.

      In the production economic world technology plays the part of the inventor. It is technology that creates the new products that replace the old. (151) This causes economic life to be dependent on technology, since, as described earlier, technologies purpose is to make life easier.

      This dependency on technology has one large effect. Technology creates a socioeconomic difference among humans. A "bourgesie" is created by the cost, and ability to keep up. Only those who can afford to implement the technologycan use it. So in a sense, "technology is the boundary of democracy" (209), since not every person is treated equally.

      This effect in turn creates another. Technological advancement leads to concentration. Only the stronger, wealthier, or up-to-date thrive. These larger corporations engulf smaller companies to eventually form even biger conglomerates, controlled by a powerful few.

    Technique and The State

      According to Ellul, the State only adopts techniques when it finds them already functioning. (243) So in order not to have a risk of failure, the State needs a guarantee before it will adopt new techniques.

      This works to the State's benefit. Because the State knows the technique works, and knows how to implement it, the increase in techniques empowers the State. (247) This is only possibly because private techniques eventually become public. (248)

      It is hard to imagine negative effects on a sure thing. It is the humans that have most of the problems.

    Human Techniques

      Technology is changing every aspect of human life, even the most simplest thing. (327) The consequences are both positive, and negative.

      Ellul explains that we are becoming a mass society, which is distanced from living. We also live by the clock. The technology may be making life easier, yet we are being provided with more tasks due to the technology. When we have time to relax, we are turning to machines, such as television sets. Yet these machines have consequences as well. According to Ellul, we are being led into an "artificial paradise". (377)

      The machines are also becoming part of our everyday world. Ellul believes that man and machine is merging. ( 410)

    A Look at the Future

      According to Ellul, the technical society will come to dominate our lives. (429) There will be no need for knowledge, since it will be kept in "electronic banks". (432) What knowledge that will be needed will simply pass from machine to brain without entering consciousness. (432)

      Ellul also goes on to state many things that sound absurd. But one reality is that society will be led by a few powerful people.


    Critique

      Ellul's dyshoric view of technology, and it's techniques is obvious throughout the entire book. We have to keep in mind that this book was written in 1964. Ellul was writing this book at a time of new machines, and most people were cautious about these machines. The fact that a machine may one day perform a human job scares people, and this may provide the basis for Ellul's pessimism.

      Again, we have to think of the time when this book was written. Ellul predicted many things, such as: artificial insemination, and "electronic banks". (432) These electronic banks could be considered our mainframe databases of today. It takes great insight to foresee the potential of technology.

      Overall, Ellul's book provides a side of the technology story that is seldom heard. Most often all we hear is how the new technique (technology) will revolutionize our lives. As Ellul says in chapter one, technological progress is seen as unconditionally valid. We are letting ourselve be led around blind when we don't question everything. It takes an author such as Ellul to set us straight, and to help us consider both sides of the story. His gently pessimism intrigues the reader, and doesn't scare him or her away. Ellul does a good job of this, without condemning society in the progress.


    David S. Gallinat
    March 14, 1998