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The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul: Where Is Technology Taking Us? My Notes

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Each working day we see the “eternally optimistic” view of where technology will take us: The bright sunlit uplands. In fact Microsoft’s new Super Bowl ad is an excellent example of this and after just finishing “The Technological Society” it seemed almost a perfect juxtaposition. (The pictures in this blog are screenshots from the Microsoft Ad)

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As a technophile, The Technological Society has challenged my thinking as much as any book I’ve read recently. Ellul’s alternative ideas to “the bright technological future” view, (which ironically appear to me to be more true now than when they were written in the 1950’s) are challenging to say the least. As I was reading the book I was surprised to find that the well known Aldous Huxley who wrote “Brave New World” noted that Ellul articulated the rationale and ideas behind what he tried to convey as a novel.

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Below are my unvarnished notes. (you can get the book here, but I’ll warn you up front it is a slog, but a worthwhile one!) I may organize them better at some point, but for now this is just raw notes. Jacques Ellul wrote in French. His word "technique" is defined much more broadly than our word “technology”; something more like "the total means for rational and efficient ordering". Some translators have rendered it “The Technological Society” and others “The Technical System”.

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Ellul asks the tough questions that are often overlooked by those who have the “eternal progress” view of technology:

  • What is technology?
  • What is it doing to and how is it changing man?
  • What is it costing is?
  • How have we been modified by technical advertising?

Below are the notes, high-lights and ideas I found interesting in “The Technological Society” by Jacques Ellul. It’s a slog (once again, well worth it) to read it, but if you don’t have the time, be my guest and benefit from my notes!

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pg79 p2 Technique is opposed to nature...

pg79 p3 [Technique] destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world...

pg94 p1 Technique reigns alone, a blind force and more clear sighted than the best human intelligence.

pg97 p1 Technique never observes the distinction between moral and immoral use. It tends...to create a completely independent technical reality. [more on the often quoted idea: tech is not bad, just used for bad]

pg99 Atomic bomb needed to come before atomic energy. "Since it was possible, it was necessary."--Jacques Soustelles.

p100 efficient police in even liberal democracies leads to (concentration camps)

p110 p3 Technique has only one principle: Efficient ordering.

p110 p3 Industrialization cannot act otherwise than to promote wars.

p110 p4 Every industry, every technique, however humane its intentions, has military value.

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p111 p3 The hope to be able to suppress "bad" and preserve "good" of technique means that the essence of the technical phenomenon has not been grasped.

p121 p2 Mikado worship vanished after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

p121 p3 Technique producing collapse of non-western civilizations...

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p130 p2 the fatal flaw in all systems designed to counterbalance the power of technique is that they come too late...

p132 p1 men do not need to understand each other to carry out the most important endeavors of our time...

p133 p2 it matters little if policy action is legal if it is efficient.

p134 p3 it has long been claimed technique is neutral...

p139 p3 true technique will know how to maintain illusion of liberty...

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p144 technical men are always disconcerted when one asks them the motive for their faith...

p190 technique in its action on the economy, awakened a vast hope in human hearts...riches...comfort and pleasure...

p191 the myth of progress causes modern war...the human being tells himself he can only attain paradise through the destruction of his enemies...

p192 progress restores man to the supernatural world from which he has been severed...

p193 is the worker better off in 1250 or 1950? What do we have to pay for it?

p194 ...decentralization while maintaining technical progress is utopian...

P198 Technique is the most important factor in the destruction of capitalism…more than revolt of the masses..

p200 liberalism permits the development of its executioner..

P203 competition tends to destroy liberalism…

p207 Every undertaking involving a real community is necessarily anti-technical at the economic level…

p208 the technical economy is anti-democratic...

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p213 If a regime is sanctioned by its people it can be maintained it is democratic. But of course this is what Hitler said of his regime...Popular support can be secured with ease by precise technique.

p217 The directed and planned economy replaces liberalism

p237 Technique, once developed to a certain point, poses problems that only the state can resolve, both from the point of view of finance and from that of power.

p238 The state seeks to organize because #1-natural communities have disappeared. #2-men can't manage their own affairs.

p266 the techniques which the state opposed in the hands of the private persons, become unchecked for the state itself

p272 the [concentration] camp as an institution is making its appearance everywhere under the most varied political regimes...

p274 workers/slaves are reduced to the lowest possible human value when their functions are specialized to completely particular tasks...

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p274 the state no longer founded on average citizen, but on the ability and knowledge of this [technical] elite

p276 Forced into the [political] game...

p276 Propaganda in single party state not intensive because there is no competition. In so-called democracies competition makes it incredibly intense and more insidious...

p277 world state inevitable...

p281 Technique has rendered traditional democratic doctrines absolute...no political doctrine is eternal...

p295 order and security is substituted for justice as the end and foundation of law when judicial technique becomes sufficiently developed...

p-- in all of twentieth-century Western civilization, the concept of order and security is substituted for justice as the end and foundation of law when judicial technique becomes sufficiently developed

p299 When, in this way, technique breaks off the indispensable dialogue between the law and the state, it makes the state a god in the most theologically accurate sense of the term: a power which obeys nothing but its own will and submits to no judgment from without. This godlike will of the state is for modern man the most precise expression of technique.

pg301 Man is gradually losing his illusions about technique and his bedazzlement with it. He is becoming aware that he has not created an instrument of freedom but a new set of chains; this appears with compelling clarity when the state exploits technical instruments

p303 modern man's collective worship of the power of fact, which is displayed in every technique and which is manifested in his total devotion to its over whelming progress.

p303 Man is scandalized when he is told that technique causes evil; [and he notes that] the scourges engendered by one technique will be made good by still other techniques


p303 there is the deep conviction that technical problems are the only serious ones. The amused glance people give the philosopher; the lack of interest displayed in metaphysical and theological questions ("Byzantine" quarrels); the rejection of the humanities which comes from the conviction that we are living in a technical age and education must correspond to it; the search for the immediately practical, carrying the implication that history is useless and can serve no practical ends-all these are symptomatic of that "reasonable" conviction which pervades

State restraints on technique:
-morality
-public opinion
-social structures
-THE STATE ITSELF

p382 The relation of technique and SPORT

pg397 "..is man the soul of the [technical] machine?.. becoming less aware of his own presence?" -The Technological Society, pg397

pg406 the rational man is still appealed to by advertising

pg407 The way of life offered by advertising is all the more compelling in that it corresponds to certain easy and simple tend­encies of man and refers to a world in which there are no spiritual values to form and inform life. When men feel and respond to the needs advertising creates, they are adhering to its ideal of life.

pg407 We can get a general impression of this new human type by studying America, where human beings tend clearly to become identified with the ideal of advertising. In America advertising enjoys universal popular adherence, and the American way of life is fashioned by it

409  There he gives us the key to this kind of psychological action: the yield is greater when man acts from consent, rather than constraint. The problem then is to get the individual's consent artificially through depth psychology, since he will not give it of his own free will.

419 present day methods of communication exclude all intellectual activity except what is so conventional that it has no decisive value.

420  "You are at liberty to seek your salvation as you understand it, provided you do nothing to change the social order." –Goebbels

433  how shall we force humanity to refrain from begetting children naturally?

435  The banality of Einstein's remarks in matters outside his specialty is as astonishing as his genius within it.

435  Yet it is apparently our fate to be facing a "golden age" in the power of sorcerers who are totally blind to the meaning of the human adventure. When they speak of preserving the seed of outstanding men, whom, pray, do they mean to be the judges. ?

436 It will be possible, says our specialist to produce a conviction or an impression of happiness without any real basis for it. Our man of the golden age, therefore, will be capable of "happiness· amid the worst privations. Why, then, promise us extraordinary comforts, hygiene, knowledge, and nourishment if, by simply manipulating our nervous systems, we can be happy without them?

PowerPoint on The Technological Society:
http://www.slideshare.net/vitalist/elluls-technological-society

Clearer translation:
http://www.jesusradicals.com/wp-content/uploads/system.pdf

Media Ecology: (thanks to @JanetPhD!)
media-ecology.org

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