"Each of us, in his own life, must seek ways of resisting and transcending technological determinism.... The first act of freedom is to become aware of the necessity" -  Jacques Ellul


Ellul's Technological Society

A remarkably perceptive viewpoint from sociologist Jacques Ellul in 1954.

Technique: The totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity (Ellul, p. xxv).

"Technique is a means of apprehending reality, of acting on the world, which allows us to neglect all individual differences, all subjectivity. Technique alone is rigorously objective" (Ellul, p. 131).

Technology: A design for instrumental action that reduces the uncertainty in the cause-effect relationships involved in achieving a desired outcome (Rogers, p. 12).



"Everyone has been taught that technique is an application of science.... This traditional view is radically false. It takes into account only a single category of science and only a short period of time" (Ellul, p. 7).

"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" (Ellul, p. 28-29).

Eiffel Tower19th Century/Early 20th Century

"The technical revolution meant the emergence of a state that was truly conscious of itself and was autonomous in relation to anything that did not serve its interests: a product of the French Revolution" (Ellul, p. 43).

"The close link between scientific research and technical invention appears to be a new factor in the 19th century.... In the 20th century, this relationship between scientific research and technical invention resulted in the enslavement of science to technology" (Ellul, p. 45).

Modern Techique


"The multiplicity of means is reduced to one: the most efficient" (Ellul, p. 21).

"The technical phenomenon cannot be broken down in such a way as to retain the good and reject the bad. It has a mass which renders it monistic.... All these techniques combine to form a whole, each part supporting and reinforcing the others" (Ellul, p. 111).

"The scientific position frequently consists of denying the existence of whatever does not belong to current technical methods" (Ellul, p. 18).


Laws of Self-Augmentation:



"Since it was possible, it was necessary" - Jacques Soustelle on the atom bomb, May 1960

"Everything which is technique is necessarily used as soon as it is available without distinction of good or evil. This is the principal law of our age" - Jacques Ellul, 1954  


Homogenization of world culture

globe"In the past, different civilizations took different paths; today all people follow the same road and the same impulse" (Ellul, p. 117).

"Technical invasion does not put new wine into old bottles. The old bottles are all being broken. The old civilizations collapse on contact with the new" (Ellul, p. 121).

"There is no place for an individual today unless he is a technician" (Ellul, p. 84).

Pace of life

running man"There is no longer respite for reflecting or choosing or adapting oneself, or for acting or wishing or pulling oneself together. The rule of life is: No sooner said than done. Life has become a racecourse...a succession of objective events which drag us along and lead us astray without anything affording us the possibility of standing apart, taking stock, and ceasing to act" (Ellul, p. 330).

"The interval which traditionally separates a scientific discovery and its application in everyday life has been progressively shortened..... The discovery enters the public domain before anyone has had a chance to recognize all the consequences or to recognize its full impact" (Ellul, p. 10).

Disappearance of nature

"We are rapidly approaching the time when there will no longer be any natural environment at all" (Ellul, p. 79).

bird"It was a little work of art in a box, an artificial nightingale exactly like the living one, except that it was studded all over with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. When the artificial bird was wound up, it could sing one of the songs the real one sang, and it wagged its tail, which glittered with silver and gold..... It sang the same tune three and thirty times over, and yet it was not tired.... The Emperor said that the real one must have a turn now. But where was it? No one had noticed that it had flown out of the open window, back to its own green woods.... All the courtiers said it was a most ungrateful bird. `We have got the best bird though,' said they, and then the artificial bird had to sing again.... The music master praised the bird tremendously and insisted that it was better than the real nightingale.... `You see...in the real nightingale you never know what you will hear, but in the artificial one everything is decided beforehand. ... The music master wrote five and twenty volumes about the artificial bird. The treatise was very long, and was written in all the most difficult Chinese characters. Everyone said they had read and understood it, for otherwise they would have been reckoned stupid.... But one evening, when the bird was singing its best and the Emperor was lying in bed listening to it, something gave way inside the bird with a whizz. Whiirr! went all the wheels, and the bird stopped." (Anderson, The Nightingale).

Office Work

computer"The conditions of war eventually become nearly his daily state; for the abnormal and the exceptional, with a somewhat lesser intensity, are reproduced regularly during the course of each day" (Ellul, pp. 320-321).

"Men become accustomed to listening to machines and talking to machines.... No more face to face encounters, no more dialogue" (Ellul, p. 379).

"The optimum age of an employee who operates business machines would seem to lie between 16 and 22" (Ellul, p. 352).

A well-known consulting firm hires its employees young and fires them when they become worn out.

Our homes & entertainment

house"A house must be conceived less for the comfort of its occupants than for the accommodation of the numerous mechanical gadgets to be installed in it" (Ellul, p. 327).

"The individual who is a servant of technique must be completely unconscious of himself" Ellul, (p. 138).

"If he ever thinks...reflection tells him that there has not been anything between his adolescent adventures and his death.... Rather than face his own phantom, he seeks film phantoms onto which he can project himself and which permit him to live as he might have willed.... In short, he becomes a hero. Life suddenly has meaning" (Ellul, p. 377).


"A great thunderstorm of sound gushed from the walls. Music bombarded him at such an intense volume that his bones were almost shaken from their tendons; he felt his jaw vibrate, his eyes wobble in his head. He was a victim of concussion. When it was all over he felt like a man who had been thrown from a cliff, whirled in a centrifugue, and spat out over a waterfall that fell and fell into emptiness and emptiness and never quite touched bottom... and you fell so fast you didn't touch the sides either... never... quite... touched... anything. The thunder faded. The music died. `There,' Mildred said." (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)

"Television, because of its power of fascination and its capacity of visual and auditory penetration, is probably the technical instrument which is most destructive of personality and of human relations. What man seeks is evidently an absolute distraction...and the simultaneous fusion of his consciousness with an omnipresent technical diversion" (Ellul, pp. 378-380).

Human Techniques


"Technique has taken over the whole of civilization. Death, procreation, birth, all must submit to technical efficiency and systematization" (Ellul, p. 128).

"It is considered illusory to think it possible to construct a true system of action from nonquantitative laws and observations. This was the traditional stumbling block for psychological techniques.... Progress came about only when the human sciences took on the exactitude of mathematics. Only metric methods can analyze and predict efficiently" (Ellul, p. 342).

"Technique, in the form of psychotechnique, aspires to take over the individual, that is, to transform the qualitative into the quantitative. It knows only two possible solutions: the transformation or annihilation of the qualitative" (Ellul, pp. 286-287).

"The individual is broken into a number of independent fragments, and no two techniques have the same dimensions or depth" (Ellul, p. 389).

"What can one hope to deduce from the purely qualitative statement that the worker is fatigued? When biochemistry makes it possible to measure fatiguability numerically, it is at last possible to take account of the worker's fatigue" (Ellul, p. 18).

"Imagine an instrument that can monitor the brain for signs of fatigue and then issue a warning before a serious accident occurs. The fatigue monitor being developed at the University of Technology, Sydney, uses electrodes to monitor brainwaves" (Australian Web site).

Performance engineering (human performance technology)


 "Technique is the instrument of performance" (Ellul, 1954).

"The way to achieve human competence is to increase the value of our accomplishments while reducing the energy we put into the effort" (Gilbert, 1978).


Gilbert's First Leisurely Theorem (Gilbert, p. 18):

Human competence is a function of worthy performance (W), which is a function of the ratio of valuable accomplishments (A) to costly behavior (B). Or, W = A/B.

Gilbert's Second Leisurely Theorem (Gilbert, p. 30):

Typical competence is inversely proportional to the Potential for Improving Performance (the PIP), which is the ratio of exemplary performance to typical performance. That is, PIP = Wex/Wt.

We can alter Behavior by altering a Person's repertory of behavior or by changing the Environment in which he functions, or: B = E times P.

The Basic Worth formula (Gilbert, p. 139) adds the role of Management to the equation: W = A/(E + P + M).


"It is the findings of thousands of educators which ceaselessly nourish the improvement of technique" (Ellul, p. 86).

"Education no longer has a humanist end or any value in itself; it has only one goal, to create technicians" (Ellul, p. 248).

A software product, the Intelligent Essay Assessor, can grade student essays and provide feedback. By providing the software with sample "good" essays, the software can "learn" what makes a good essay (Technology Training, Feb. 1999).

"What looks like the apex of humanism is in fact the pinnacle of human submission: children are educated to become precisely what society expects of them" (Ellul, p. 348).

"The conditions for psychological efficiency are, first, group integration, and second, group unanimity. The purpose of psychological methods is to neutralize or eliminate aberrant individuals" (Ellul, p. 410).


"It depends on what the meaning of `is' is." - President Clinton, 1998

"When there is propaganda, we are no longer able to evaluate certain questions, or even to discuss them" - Jacques Ellul, 1954  


"Propaganda is not the defense of an idea but the manipulation of the mob's subconscious. The hope reposed in the contradictions of propaganda comes to this: the citizen receives a blow in the face from his neighbor on the right, which, fortunately, is compensated for by another blow from his neighbor on the left. If propaganda involved calm exposition of political theories among which the citizen might choose intelligently, contradictions would be beneficial... But this is an impossibility" (Ellul, pp. 373-374).

"Our civilization sets the highest value on brotherly relations. But the structures of our world and its real norms represent diametrically the opposite. The fundamental rule of today is the rule of economic, political, and class competition. The disequilibrium...has produced the climate of anxiety and insecurity characteristic of our epoch and of our neuroses" (Ellul, p. 333).

The subconscious

 horse"Every technique makes a fundamental appeal to the unconscious" (Ellul, p. 403).

"It is highly significant that technical elements begin to appear in what the psychoanalysis call the `great dreams.' This mechanical penetration of the unconscious indicates that nothing human is exempt from the influence of technique" (Ellul, pp. 403-404).  

Over the past year a struggle of mythic proportion has gone on nightly in my dreams between the world of technology and the world of intuition and emotion. This is one of my dreams:

"I am the leader of a tribe of Amazons fighting another group in a struggle to the death. The women on the other side surrender to us. We kill all the males. I kill the last one by plunging a dagger into him several times (though I hate doing it). Some sort of parade is going through town composed of giant metal contraptions filled with small children. We shout `Charge!' and attack the metal contraptions, tipping them over, but try not to injure the children inside. I see that the machinery is being telepathically powered by two male cyborgs. We manage to free the children. But now a shifting of the ground has caused a giant wave to threaten the town. We run to a barrier that divides the town into two rooms. There are lots of pebbles piled near the door. I open the door, and multicolored sand comes pouring out of the other room: dark red and amber and beige and gold. If I can empty this room we can run into it, seal ourselves off from the approaching sea, and be safe."

The End of Individualism

happy face"When a society becomes increasingly totalitarian...[it] requires its citizens to be conformist in the same degree. Thus, technique becomes all the more necessary. I have no doubt that it makes men better balanced and `happier.' And there is the danger. It makes men happy in a milieu which normally would have made them unhappy" (Ellul, p. 348)

"Technique cannot be otherwise than totalitarian. Everything is its concern" (Ellul, p. 125).

"The individual participates only to the degree that he is subordinate to the search for efficiency, to the degree that he resists all the currents today considered secondary, such as aesthetics, ethics, fantasy" (Ellul, p. 74).

"The enormous effort required to put this technical civilization into motion supposes that all individual effort is directed toward this goal alone.... Henceforth...the individual will no longer be able, materially or spiritually, to disengage himself from society" (Ellul, p. 248).

 "Technical civilization has made a great error in not suppressing death, the only human reality still intact" - Jacques Ellul, 1954


Anderson, H.C. (1965). The nightingale. In Anderson's Fairy Tales (Illustrated Junior Library edition, pp. 243-255). New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

Bradbury, R. (1953). Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books.

Ellul, J. (1964 American edition; the French edition was published in 1954). The technological society. New York: Vintage Books.

Gilbert, T. F. (1996). Human competence: Engineering worthy performance (tribute edition). Washington, DC: International Society for Performance Improvement.

Rogers, E .M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations (4th edition). New York: The Free Press.


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