Today's date:
 
Summer 2000


Looking Back at the Future Ideas of Technology: The Technological Order

Jacques Ellul, the French theologian and philosopher from Bordeaux is author of the seminal critique, The Technological Society (1963). This article was translated by John Wilkinson.

1. Technique has become the new and specific milieu in which man is required to exist, one which has supplanted the old milieu of nature.
2. This new technical milieu has the following characteristics:
- It is artificial;
- It is autonomous with respect to values, ideas and the state;
- It is self-determining in a closed circle. Like nature, it is a closed organization which permits it to be self-determinative independently of all human intervention;
- It is formed by an accumulation of means which have established primacy over ends;
All its parts are mutually implicated to such a degree that it is impossible to separate them or to settle any technical problem in isolation.

3. Since Technique has become the new milieu, all social phenomena are situated in it. It is incorrect to say that economics, politics and the sphere of the cultural are influenced or modified by Technique; they are rather situated in it, a novel situation modifying all traditional social concepts. Politics, for example, is not modified by Technique as one factor among others which operate upon it; the political world is today defined through its relation to the technological society. Traditionally, politics formed a part of a larger social whole; at the present the converse is the case.
Modern man’s state of mind is completely dominated by technical values, and his goals are represented only by such progress and happiness as is to be achieved through techniques. Modern man in choosing is already incorporated within the technical process and modified in his nature by it. He is no longer in his traditional state of freedom with respect to judgement and choice.

Who, whom? To say that man should remain subject rather than object in the technological society means two things, that he be capable of giving direction and orientation to Technique, and that, to this end, he be able to master it.
The imperative that man exercise mastery over technical development is facilely accepted by everyone. But factually it simply does not hold. Even more embarrassing than the question "How?" is the question "Who?" We must ask ourselves realistically and concretely just who is in a position to choose the values which give Technique its justification and to exert mastery over it. If such a person or persons are to be found, it must be in the Western world (inclusive of Russia). They certainly are not to be discovered in the bulk of the world’s population which inhabits Africa and Asia, who are, as yet, scarcely confronted by technical problems, and who, in any case, are even less aware of the questions involved than we are.
Is the arbiter we seek to be found among the philosophers, those thinking specialists? We well know the small influence these gentry exert upon our society, and how the technicians of every order distrust them and rightly refuse to take their reveries seriously. Even if the philosopher could make his voice heard, he would still have to contrive means of mass education so as to communicate an effective message to the masses.

Can the technician himself assume mastery over Technique? The trouble here is that the technician is always a specialist and cannot make the slightest claim to have mastered any technique but his own. Those for whom Technique bears its meaning in itself will scarcely discover the values which lend meaning to what they are doing. They will not even look for them. The only thing they can do is to apply their technical specialty and assist in its refinement. They cannot in principle dominate the totality of the technical problem or envisage it in its global dimensions. Ergo, they are completely incapable of mastering it.

Can the scientist do it? There, if anywhere, is the great hope. Does not the scientist dominate our techniques? Is he not an intellectual inclined and ft to put basic questions? Unfortunately, we are obliged to re-examine our hopes here when we look at things as they are. We see quickly enough that the scientist is as specialized as the technician, as incapable of general ideas, and as much out of commission as the philosopher. Think of the scientists who, on one tack or another, have addressed themselves to the technical phenomenon: Einstein, Oppenheimer, Carrel. It is only too clear that the ideas these gentlemen have advanced in the sphere of the philosophic or the spiritual are vague, superfcial and contradictory. They really ought to stick to warnings and proclamations, for as soon as they assay anything else, the other scientists and the technicians rightly refuse to take them seriously, and they even run the risk of losing their reputations as scientists.
Can a politician bring it off? In the democracies the politicians are subject to the wishes of their constituents who are primarily concerned with the happiness and well-being which they think Technique assures them. Moreover, the further we get on, the more a conflict shapes up between the politicians and the technicians. It would appear that the power of the politician is being (and will continue to be) outclassed by the power of the technician in modern states.

Any of us? An individual can doubtless seek the soundest attitude to dominate the techniques at his disposal. He can inquire after the values to impose on techniques in his use of them, and search out the way to follow in order to remain a man in the fullest sense of the world within a technological society. All this is extremely difficult, but it is far from being useless, since it is apparently the only solution presently possible. But the individual’s efforts are powerless to resolve in any way the technical problem in its universality; to accomplish this would mean that all men adopt the same values and the same behavior.

A threefold contradiction resides between civilization and Technique of which we must be aware if we are to approach the problem correctly:

1 The technical world is the world of material things; it is put together out of material things and with respect to them. When Technique displays any interest in man, it does so by converting him into a material object. The supreme and final authority in the technological society is fact. And when we think of man as he exists in this society it can only be as a being immersed in a universe of objects, machines and innumerable material things. Technique indeed guarantees him such material happiness as material objects can. But the technical society is not, and cannot be, a genuinely humanist society since it puts in first place not man but material things. It can only act on man by lessening him and putting him in the way of the quantitative. The radical contradiction referred to exists between technical perfection and human development because such perfection is only to be achieved through quantitative development and necessarily aims exclusively at what is measurable. Human excellence, on the contrary, is of the domain of the qualitative and aims at what is not measurable. Spiritual values cannot evolve as a function of material improvement. The transition from the technically quantitative to the humanly qualitative is an impossible one. In our times, technical growth monopolizes all human forces, passions, intelligences and virtues in such a way that it is in practice nigh impossible to seek and find anywhere any distinctively human excellence. And if this search is impossible, there cannot be any civilization in the proper sense of the term.

2 Technical growth leads to a growth of power in the sense of technical means incomparably more effective than anything ever before invented, power which has as its object only power, in the widest sense of the word. The possibility of action becomes limitless and absolute. For example, we are confronted for the frst time with the possibility of the annihilation of all life on Earth, since we have the means to accomplish it. In every sphere of action we are faced with just such absolute possibilities. Again, by way of example, governmental techniques, which amalgamate organizational, psychological and police techniques, tend to lend to government absolute powers. And here I must emphasize a great law which I believe to be essential to the comprehension of the world in which we live. That when power becomes absolute, values disappear.


When man is able to accomplish anything at all, there is no value which can be proposed to him. Power eliminates, in proportion to its growth, the boundary between good and evil, between the just and the unjust.


We are familiar enough with this phenomenon in totalitarian societies. The distinction between good and evil disappears beginning with the moment that the ground of action (for example the raison d’état, or the instinct of the proletariat) claims to have absolute power and thus to incorporate all value. Thus it is that the growth of technical means tending to absolutism forbids the appearance of values and condemns to sterility our search for the ethical and the spiritual. Again, where Technique has place, there is the implication of the impossibility of the evolution of civilization.

3 The third and final contradiction is that Technique can never engender freedom. Of course, Technique frees mankind from a whole collection of ancient constraints. It is evident, for example, that it liberates him from the limits imposed on him by time and space; that man, through its agency, is free (or at least tending to become free) from famine, excessive heat and cold, the rhythms of the seasons, and from the gloom of night; that the race is freed from certain social constraints through its commerce with the universe, and from its intellectual limitations through its accumulation of information. But is this what it means really to be free?

Other constraints as oppressive and rigorous as the traditional ones are imposed on the human being in today’s technological society through the agency of Technique. New limits and technical oppressions have taken the place of the older,
natural constraints, and we certainly cannot aver that much has been gained.
The problem is deeper—the operation of Technique is the contrary of freedom, an operation of determinism and necessity. Technique is an ensemble of rational and efficient practices; a collection of orders, schemas and mechanisms. All of this expresses very well a necessary order and a determinate process, but one into which freedom, unorthodoxy and the sphere of the gratuitous and spontaneous cannot penetrate. All that these last could possibly introduce is discord and disorder. The more technical actions increase in society, the more human autonomy and initiative diminish. The more the human being comes to exist in a world of ever increasing demands (fortified with technical apparatus possessing its own laws to meet these demands), the more he loses any possibility of free choice and individuality in action. This loss is greatly magnified by Technique’s character of self-determination, which makes its appearance among us as a kind of fatality and as a species of perpetually exaggerated necessity.

Where freedom is excluded in this way, an authentic civilization has little chance. Confronted in this way by the problem, it is clear to us that no solution can exist, in spite of the writings of all the authors who have concerned themselves with it. They all make an unacceptable premise, rejection of Technique and return to a pre-technical society. One may well regret that some value or other of the past, some social or moral form, has disappeared; but, when one attacks the problem of the technical society, one can scarcely make the serious claim to be able to revive the past, a procedure which, in any case, scarcely seems to have been, globally speaking, much of an improvement over the human situation of today. All we know with certainty is that it was different, that the human being confronted other dangers, errors, difficulties and temptations.

Our duty is to occupy ourselves with the dangers, errors, difficulties and temptations of modern man in the modern world. All regret for the past is vain; every desire to revert to a former social stage is unreal. There is no possibility of turning back, of annulling or even arresting technical progress. What is done is done. It is our duty to find our place in our present situation and in no other. Nostalgia has no survival value in the modern world and can only be considered a flight into dreamland.

We can divide into two great categories the authors who search for a solution to the problem posed by Technique: The first class is that of those who hold that the problem will solve itself; the second, of those who hold that the problem demands a great effort or even a great modification of the whole man.
Politicians, scientists and technicians are to be found in the first class. In general, they consider the problem in a very concrete and practical way. Their general notion seems to be that technical progress resolves all difficulties as they appear and that it contains within itself the solution to everything. The sufficient condition for them, therefore, is that technical progress be not arrested; everything which plagues us today will disappear tomorrow.

MARXISTS | The primary example of these people is furnished by the Marxists, for whom technical progress is the solution to the plight of the proletariat and all its miseries, and to the problem posed by the exploitation of man by man in the capitalistic world. Technical progress, which is for Marx the motive force of history, necessarily increases the forces of production and simultaneously produces a progressive conflict between forward-moving factors and stationary social factors like the state, law, ideology and morality, a conflict occasioning the periodic disappearance of the outmoded factors.

Technique, therefore, carries in itself the response to all the difficulties it raises.

TECHNICIANS | A second example of this kind of solution is given by a certain number of technicians. All difficulties will inevitably be resolved by the technical growth which will bring the technicians to power. Technique admittedly raises certain conflicts and problems, but their cause is that the human race remains attached to certain political ideologies and moralities and loyal to certain outmoded and antiquated humanists whose sole visible function is to provoke discord of heart and head, thereby preventing men from adapting themselves and from entering resolutely into the path of technical progress.

In other words, men are subject to distortions of life and consciousness which have their origin, not in Technique, but in the conflict between Technique and the false values to which men remain attached. These fake values, decrepit sentiments and outmoded notions must inevitably be eliminated by the invincible progress of Technique. In particular, in the political domain, the majority of crises arise from the fact that men are still wedded to certain antique political forms and ideas, for example, democracy. All problems will be resolved if power is delivered into the hands of the technicians who alone are capable of directing Technique in its entirety and making of it a positive instrument for human service.

General power accorded to the technicians become technocrats is the only way out since they are the only ones possessing the necessary competence; and, in any case, they are being carried to power by the current of history, the fact which alone offers a quick enough solution to technical problems. It is impossible to rely on the general improvement of the human species, a process which would take too long and would be too chancy. For the generality of men, it is necessary to take into account that Technique establishes an inevitable discipline, which, on the one hand, they must accept, and, on the other, the technocrats will humanize.

ECONOMISTS |
The third example is furnished by the economists, who, in very different ways, affirm the thesis of the automatic solution. Fourastié is a good example of such economists. For him, the first thing to do is to draw up a balance between that which Technique is able to deliver and that which it may destroy.
In his eyes there is no real problem: What Technique can bring to man is incomparably superior to that which it threatens. Moreover, if difficulties do exist, they are only temporary ones which will be resolved beneficially, as was the case with the similar difficulties of the last century. Nothing decisive is at stake; man is in no mortal danger.

The contrary is the case: Technique produces the foundation, infrastructure and suprastructure which will enable man really to become man. What we have known up to now can only be called the prehistory of a human race so overwhelmed by material cares, famine, and danger that the truly human never had an opportunity to develop into a civilization worthy of the name. Human intellectual, spiritual, and moral life will, according to Fourastié, never mature except when life is able to start from a complete satisfaction of its material needs, complete security, including security from famine and disease. The growth of Technique, therefore, initiates the genuinely human history of the whole man. This new type of human being will clearly be different from what we have hitherto known; but this fact should occasion no complaint or fear. The new type cannot help being superior to the old in every way, after all the traditional (and exclusively material) obstacles to his development have vanished. Thus, progress occurs automatically, and the inevitable role of Technique will be that of guaranteeing such material development as allows the intellectual and spiritual maturation of what has been up to now only potentially present in human nature.

IMPERILED MAN | The orientation of the other group of doctrines affirms, on the contrary, that man is dangerously imperiled by technical progress; and that human will, personality and organization must be set again to rights if society is to be able to guard against the imminent danger. Unfortunately, these doctrines share with their opposites the quality of being too optimistic, in that they affirm that their thesis is even feasible and that man is really capable of the rectifications proposed.

EINSTEIN’S WORRIES | The orientation of Einstein, and the closely related one of Jules Romains, are well known: The human being must get technical progress back again into his own hands, admitting that the situation is so complicated and the data so overwhelming that only some kind of "superstate" can possibly accomplish the task. A sort of spiritual power integrated into a world government in possession of indisputable moral authority might be able to master the progression of techniques and to direct human evolution. Einstein’s suggestion is the convocation of certain philosopher-scientists, whereas Romains’ idea is the establishment of a "Supreme Court of Humanity." Both of these bodies would be organs of meditation, of moral quest, before which temporal powers would be forced to bow.

A second example of this kind of orientation is given by Bergson, at the end of his work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. According to Bergson, initiative can only proceed from humanity, since in Technique there is no "force des choses." Technique has conferred disproportionate power on the human being, and a disproportionate extension to his organism. But, "in this disproportionately magnified body, the soul remains what it was, too small to fll it and too feeble to direct it. Hence the void between the two."

Bergson goes on to say that "this enlarged body awaits a supplement of soul, the mechanical demands the mystical," and..." that Technique will never render service proportionate to its powers unless humanity, which has bent it earthwards, succeeds by its means in reforming itself and looking heavenwards."

This means that humanity has a task to perform, and that man must grow proportionately to his techniques, but that he must will it and force himself to make the experiment. This experiment is, in Bergson’s view, a possibility, and is even favored by that technical growth which allows more material resources to men than ever before. The required "supplement of soul" is therefore of the order of the possible and will suffice for humans to establish mastery over Technique.

A third example is afforded by a whole group of theologians, most of them Roman Catholic. Man, in his actions in the domain of the technical, is but obeying the vocation assigned him by his Creator. Man, in continuing his work of technical creation, is pursuing the work of his Creator. Thanks to Technique, this man, who was originally created "insufficient," is becoming "adolescent."

He is summoned to new responsibilities in this world which do not transcend his powers since they correspond exactly to what God expects of him. Under such conditions, it is clear that Technique is neither evil nor fraught with evil consequences. On the contrary, it is good and cannot be dangerous to men. It can only become evil to the extent that man turns from God; it is a danger only if its true nature is misapprehended. All the errors and problems visible in today’s world result uniquely from the fact that man no longer recognizes his vocation as God’s collaborator. If man ceases to adore the "creature" (Technique) in order to adore the true God; if he turns Technique to God and to His service, the problems must disappear.

TEILHARD’S TAKE | Finally, it is necessary to represent by itself a doctrine which holds at the present a place of some importance in the Western world, that of Father Teilhard de Chardin, a man who was simultaneously a theologian and a scientist. His doctrine appears as an intermediate between the two tendencies already sketched. For Chardin, evolution in general, since the origin of the universe, has represented a constant progression. First of all, there was a motion toward a diversification of matter and of beings; then, there supervened a motion toward a higher Unity. In the biological world, every step forward has been effected when man has passed from a stage of "dispersion" to a stage of "concentration."

At the present, technical human progress and the spontaneous movement of life are in agreement and in mutual continuity. They are evolving together toward a higher degree of organization, and this movement manifests the influence of Spirit. Matter, left to itself, is characterized by a necessary and continuous degradation. But on the contrary, we note that progress, advancement, improvement do exist, and hence, a power contradicting the spontaneous movement of matter, a power of creation and progress exists which is the opposite of matter. It is Spirit.

Spirit has contrived Technique as a means of organizing dispersed matter, in order simultaneously to express progress and to combat the degradation of matter. Technique is producing at the same time a prodigious demographics explosion, a greater density of human population. By all these means it is bringing forth "communion" among men; and likewise creating from inanimate matter a higher and more organized form of matter which is taking part in the ascension of the cosmos toward God.

Granting that it is true that every progression in the physical and biological order is brought about by a condensation of the elements of the preceding period, what we are witnessing today, according to Chardin, is a condensation, a concentration of the whole human species. Technique, in producing this, possesses a function of unification inside humanity, so that humanity becomes able thereby to have access to a sort of unity. Technical progress is therefore synonymous with "socialization," this latter being but the political and economic sign of communion among men, the temporary expression of the "condensation" of the human species into a whole. Technique is the irreversible agent of this condensation; it prepares the new step forward which humanity must make.

When men cease to be individual and separate units, and all together form a total and indissoluble communion, then humanity will be a single body. This material concentration is always accompanied by a maturation of the spirit, the commencement of a new species of life. Thanks to Technique, there is "socialization," the progressive concentration on a planetary scale of disseminated spiritual personalities into a suprapersonal unity. This mutation leads to another Man, spiritual and unique, and means that humanity in its ensemble and in its unity has attained the supreme goal, its fusion with that glorious Christ who must appear at the end of time. Thus Chardin holds that in technical progress man is "Christified," and that technical evolution tends inevitably to the "edification" of the cosmic Christ.

It is clear that in Chardin’s grandiose perspective, the individual problems, difficulties and mishaps of Technique are negligible. It is likewise clear how Chardin’s doctrine lies midway between the two preceding ones: On the one hand, it affirms a natural and involuntary ascension of man, a process inclusive of biology, history and the like, evolving as a kind of will of God in which Technique has its proper place; and, on the other, it affirms that the evolution in question implies consciousness, and an intense involvement on the part of man who is proceeding to socialization and thus committing himself to this mutation.

All of these theories appear to repose on a too superficial view of the technical phenomenon. They are practically inapplicable because they presuppose a certain number of necessary conditions which are not given. None of these theories, therefore, can be deemed satisfactory.

It seems to me that we can set forth the following thesis: The further technical progress advances, the more the social problem of mastering this progress becomes one of an ethical and spiritual kind. In proportion to the degree that man extricates himself from the domain of the material, dominates it and multiplies thereby the means of exploiting matter, the problem ceases to be one of human possibilities and limits and becomes one rather of knowing which man (or group of men) will exploit technical means, and what will be the enabling moral and spiritual qualities.

What, then, are the necessary conditions for ethical and spiritual progress to take place?

The first thing needed is a correct diagnosis and an effort to achieve a genuine consciousness of the problem. The diagnostic element must be accompanied by a becoming conscious—by passing from the intellectual to the existential, which means that mankind must accept the fact that his existence is "engaged" and involved in this venture, and that his very freedom is at stake. It is necessary to become conscious of the fact that in every domain, Technique has established stricter and stricter domination over the human being. But this consciousness must not be negative—no scientific determinism or divine fatalism before which man can only bow and confess himself unfree. On the contrary, it must be recognized that man qua free is subject to constraints and determinations which his vocation to be free must make him combat and rise clear of. But, to the extent that man clings to the illusion of the present that he is free (and uses the vocabulary of freedom); or, to the extent that he holds to the conviction that all will be well though he sees that the Technique actually diminishes the area of freedom, and dreams that possibilities of freedom still exist—in all these cases, his natural inertia is leading him to accept a condition of slavery and to pay for his technological happiness with his freedom.
o A second essential element consists in ruthlessly destroying the "myth" of Technique, the whole ideological construction and the tendency to consider technology something possessing sacred character. Intellectuals attempt to insert the technical phenomenon into the framework of their respective intellectual or philosophical systems by attributing to it a quality of supreme excellence; for example, when they demonstrate that Technique is an instrument of freedom, or the means of ascent to historical destiny, or the execution of a divine vocation. All such constructions have the result of glorifying and sanctifying Technique and of putting the human being at the disposal of some indisputable historical law or other. A further aspect of this element is the sacred, the human tendency spontaneously to attribute sacred value to what so manifestly possesses transcendent power. Technique, in this view, is not solely an ensemble of material elements, but that which gives meaning and value to life, allowing man not only to live but to live well.

Technique is intangible and unattackable precisely because everything is subject and subordinate to it. Man unconsciously invests with a holy prestige that against which he is unable to prevail. It seems to me that the only means to mastery over Technique is by way of "de-sacralization" and "de-ideologization." Technique is nothing more than a complex of material objects, procedures and combinations, which have as their sole result a modicum of comfort, hygiene and ease. Men must be convinced that technical progress is not humanity’s supreme adventure, but a commonplace fabrication of certain objects which scarcely merit enthusiastic delirium even when they happen to be Sputniks.

A consequence of this is that, in practice, it is necessary to teach man in his employment of Techniques a certain detachment and independence with respect to them—and humor. Man must be capable of questioning at every step his use of his technical goods, able to refuse them and to force them to submit to determining factors other than the technical, say, the spiritual. He must be able to exploit all these goods without becoming unduly attached to them and without becoming convinced that even his most imposing technical conquests are to be taken seriously. Such recommendations must, of course, appear scandalous to contemporary eyes.

To affirm that these things have no importance at all in respect to truth and freedom, that it is a matter of no real importance whether man succeeds in reaching the moon, or curing disease with antibiotics, or upping steel production, is really a scandal. As long as man does not learn to use technical objects in the right way he must remain their slave.

Finally, it is necessary to point out the importance of the relation between the technicians and those who try to pose the technical problem. The technicians have become an authoritarian and closed world. They may be armed with good consciences, but likewise with the conviction of their essential rightness and the persuasion that all discourse and reflection of a non-technical nature are verbalisms of no importance. To get them to engage in the dialogue or to question their own creation is an almost superhuman task, the more so that he who will enter this dialogue must be completely aware of what he wants, just what the technician is driving at, and what the technician is able to grasp of the problem. But, as long as such interchange does not take place, nothing will happen, since influencing Technique necessarily means influencing the technicians.
It seems to me that this dialogue can only come about by making contact which will represent a permanent and basic confrontation between technique’s pretensions to resolve all human problems and the human will to escape technical determinism.

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