• Paul D. Wilke

Jacques Ellul, Technique, and the Digital Age

"If you wish to escape," says Technique, "you are welcome to try."

Jacques Ellul was kind of skeptical about where we were headed as a civilization. The product of that skepticism was his book, The Technological Society, written back in 1964. In it, he laid out why he thought our enthusiastic embrace of technology was a threat to human freedom. I recently re-read The Technological Society to see how much of it still applies today. While others like Lewis Mumford, Ivan Illich, Neil Postman, and more recently Yuval Harari, have written extensively about the impact of technology on humanity, Jacques Ellul was one of the most prescient about where this was all headed. While some of his ideas feel a little dated, much remains relevant today.

So what was his take on technology?

First, technology works in a kind of symbiotic relationship with something he called technique. Think of technique as the method or process used to accomplish certain tasks. Prehistoric hunter-gathers had techniques (best practices) for hunting, fishing, crafting stone tools, etc., but these were based largely on expertise passed down from one generation to the next.

Pre-modern technique and technology did not necessarily go hand in hand. Today, in contrast, technique relies almost exclusively on technology to find "the one best way" of doing everything. Efficiency is always the goal. However, technique triumphant ends up chipping away at choice to the point that every human function comes to have a commonsense best way of doing it.

According to Ellul, this relentless drive for efficiency suffocates spontaneity, choice, and freedom. "This 'one best way' becomes a dogma that applies to increasingly more aspects of life. This destroys choice. Nothing can compete with technique." [1] Technology, therefore, becomes the default mechanism of implementing technique in our lives.

This is where our modern idea of progress stems. We just assume that every few years, our phones will be smarter, our internet faster, our weapons deadlier, and our lives better. Technique always delivers and we assume it always will. That is our faith today.

But this is no Orwellian vision of a future where human spirit is forever stamped under the boot of a totalitarian dictatorship. No, according to Ellul, technique is much more insidious than that. On the surface, we're not forced into anything against our will. Instead, we gladly accept a kind of fait accompli, with only the best and most obvious way of doing things already decided for us beforehand.

Ellul says, "The individual is in a dilemma: either he decides to safeguard his freedom of choice, chooses to use traditional, personal, moral, or empirical means, thereby entering into competition with a power against which there is no efficacious defense and before which he must suffer defeat; or he decides to accept technical necessity, in which case he will himself be the victor, but only by submitting irreparably to technical slavery. In effect, he has no freedom of choice" [2].

In this environment, technique almost resembles an independent force of nature like gravity, operating autonomously from our desires, always driving us toward maximum efficiency. Resistance is futile, but you don't want it any other way. It's just how things are, simple common sense.

Technique is sinister because it is so persuasive and pervasive, so appealing to our inclination for comfort and ease; it appears to give much more than it takes, and in many ways that is true, but we are nonetheless trading freedom and spontaneity for security and comfort.

And who would argue that these advances are bad things? Technique combined with technology has undeniably made our lives easier. True, Ellul would say, but that's the thing with technique. Take satellite navigation, for example. Now there's one best way to travel to your destination. GPS gives you that one best way, but only by deploying other techniques as well. You have to use satellite navigation, but for maximum efficiency, you'll need to use certain multi-lane interstate highways, rather than county roads. You could choose otherwise, but why would you? It wouldn't make sense. We want to go from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. Common sense dictates that you do it the common-sense way, the 'one best way.' Satellite navigation saves fuel, time, and stress; four-lane interstate highways do too. This is the one best way for vehicle travel.

What else? Well, you can grow all your own food, if you want, and if you have the time and expertise. You can raise your own livestock, feed them, slaughter them, and then store all that meat. Or instead, you can go to one of our wonderfully stocked grocery stores and just pick up what you need instantaneously and at a low cost. This is the one best way of getting food.

Or go ahead and make your own clothes using traditional, hand-crafting techniques. Or, just go to Walmart and buy clothes that were cheaply manufactured in factories overseas. Here is the one best way of getting clothing. Few would argue otherwise.

That's doesn't sound so bad, does it? Give me some more technique, you're probably thinking. But hold on, Ellul might respond. Technique doesn't only work in this one, narrow scenario; it seeks to find the one best way in every aspect of our lives. Nothing is exempt. And here is the thing, technique may or may not always work on our behalf to make our lives happier. Ellul argues that as technique encroaches on different parts of our lives, spontaneity dies, and once that is gone, freedom withers as well. That illusion of personal freedom remains, yes, but we end up doing what technique 'wants.'

Technique and the technological solutions it offers impact everything, and "right" only depends on where you are in the system of technique. That cheap and abundant food in our grocery stores is a marvel of technique. It's almost magical how our food just seems to appear all neatly packaged on store shelves. Unfortunately, we don't have to see the nightmare of hidden horrors that actually makes this possible. The modern factory farm, the aptly named Concentrated Agricultural Feeding Operation (CAFO), is the very triumph of technique. Efficiency maximized and well-being minimized, at least for those creatures literally ground up in this system of production.

Ellul worried that the end result would be a gradual erosion of human individuality; spontaneity would slowly vanish and we would end up the tools of our tools instead of the other way around. Ask yourself, are people in general happier today than before, even after all the advances in technology we've experienced since Ellul's time? Arguably, no, not at all. We can rightly claim that our lives are materially better than ever before in history, but we are still no happier, no matter how full our bellies or how warm our beds. Famine, disease, and war are now more remote than ever, but the existential angst remains.

But don't worry, that's merely a problem for technique to solve. Unhappy? There's a pill for that. Too much anxiety? Another pill. Can't sleep? A pill. Too stressed to get an erection? No worries! A tiny pill will fix that. One in six Americans take medication for depression or anxiety, and that number is rising.

Even our emotional states are subject to this 'one best way' approach to reality, and like satellite navigation or fully stocked grocery stores, who can argue if the outcome of technique's intervention is increased personal efficiency and apparent well-being? Why threaten your relationships and professional careers because you suffer from depression when there is a pill available to treat it?

But then we get into troublesome territory, where the glorious future promised by technologists doesn't live up to expectations. The one best way of technique dictates that you accommodate yourself to it, not the other way around. Thus, you change, not technique, no matter what illusions of personal autonomy you put your faith in.

It's you popping that pill to get through the day to conform to a society that is telling you all the time how free you are, when in fact your horizon for spontaneity has somehow narrowed down to the screen of a smartphone or an office computer. A system created by technique, to run efficiently, needs you to run efficiently as well. So take your medicine.

And then there's social engineering. Be honest, how many times a day do you check your phone or social media? Dozens? Hundreds maybe? Do you find yourself getting online to check just one thing, and then an hour passes and you're still scrolling aimlessly at nothing in particular? Do you almost feel ​​compelled to do so, like an itch that has to be scratched every few minutes? And most importantly, does all this compulsive behavior make you any happier?

Ellul would argue that this is another prime example of technique, but this time done to manipulate your behavior by fucking with your mind. Instead of engaging in a hobby, going for a walk, gardening, socializing or just sitting around daydreaming, people find themselves doing otherwise, stuck in a rut of routine, much of it dictated by technique, and they're miserable for it because they no longer have the creative spontaneity to fill the empty spaces.

On our own, uncomfortably without our technique-derived toys, we find our imaginations impoverished. But the choice is still technically ours, right? We are the captains of our souls and all that rubbish. We could do a million other things and yet do the same things each and every day. 'Freedom isn't free' means something else entirely in this context.

Technique, in this case, is economic. Your value is now as a consumer of content first and foremost. Technique is solving a problem posed by online commerce: How to get and keep your eyeballs glued to online content. Clicks and views equal revenues. No worries, technology will solve the problem. Sophisticated algorithms (techniques) are able to track your browsing habits to create even better algorithms (better techniques) which in turn produce finer-tuned suggestions for your browsing pleasure. All seek to leverage biological tendencies that nudge us towards certain kinds of compulsive behaviors. You end up seeing what they want you to see, not the other way around, and reacting the way they want you to react, not the other way around. Technique only creates the illusion of choice.

Again, none of this happens against our will, but as a result, people gradually trade freedom and spontaneity for security and comfort. In return for our desire for maximum efficiency, we get microwave ovens, refrigerators, air conditioning, plus abundant food and energy. And so much more. But when you look at how each aspect of our lives now leaves so little room for maneuver, how everything is done a certain way every time, you can start to see Ellul's point, even if you still believe that it's all better this way.

An ever-larger part of our waking consciousness is spent feeding the various techniques that touch our lives - economic, social, political, leisure, even sexual. Today, the average American spends almost 24-hours a week online [3]. Ellul would not have been surprised. This is merely the inevitable culmination of technique and its quest to find technical solutions to human problems. It's not going to stop, either.

Technology is gradually compressing all of these separate spheres of our lives into one, hyper-efficient, all-in-one system, a one-stop-shop for all our needs, a mega-technique to rule them all. Technique is now our One True God, the real invisible hand, and the golden chain that binds us.

We wouldn't have it any other way.

[1] Jacques Ellul. The Technological Society: Vintage Books, 2011. 84.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Harlan Lebo. “The 2017 Digital Future Report: Surveying the Digital Future.” Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg, 6.