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
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 mans 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
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 worlds 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 individuals
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 détat,
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 todays 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 deeperthe 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 Techniques
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
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
EINSTEINS 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. Einsteins 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 Bergsons
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 todays world result uniquely from the fact
that man no longer recognizes his vocation as Gods 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.
TEILHARDS 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 Chardins grandiose perspective, the individual
problems, difficulties and mishaps of Technique are negligible. It is
likewise clear how Chardins 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 consciousby 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 negativeno 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 existin 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 humanitys 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 themand 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 techniques
pretensions to resolve all human problems and the human will to escape