Released in 1954, The Technological Society broke ground with a different take on where we were, how we came here and where our potential future lies. Jacques Ellul, the author of the book, fused his philosophical and historical knowledge to create an alternative narrative that is both fascinating and necessary.
The most central theme of the book is Mr. Ellul’s re-describing the word “Technique”, a word that is the most common one in the entire book and one he takes the utmost care in redefining for himself, in order to present his new creation for his readers. He introduces a solid definition in the opening of the book:
“In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity. Its characteristics are new; The technique of the present has no common measure with that of the past – Jacques Ellul
Working with this as the base, the book is used as a platform for Ellul to present this idea of what technique is, using historical events and societal constructions of the past to show us the contrast in approach to things the modern man is.
Taking that historical view, Ellul states that technique was developed in ancient times independent of science. The motive behind applying a technique to something isn’t to make that something as efficient as possible or reproduce that thing as many times as possible. Other motives were applied instead, like the artistic, poetic, philosophical – In stark contrast to today’s hyperrational methods of production.
The most important feature of techniques today is that they do not depend on manual labor, but on organization and on the arrangement of machines” – Jaques Ellul
In this worldview, Ellul gives us a great example in the discovery of penicillin; The medical use of penicillin was discovered before the know-how in reproducing and conserving it and had to wait for methods to do those two things to be discovered.
Ellul also describes a fascinating and thought-provoking concept: We used to imitate nature, as opposed to the more modern approach of copying nature. What is the difference between these two ways to approach building things? Ellul gives the case of airplanes – The ones that tried to imitate birds, with dynamic wings that you could flap around was a failure. The airplanes with static wings that used aerodynamics to fly was a success, a copy of a specific moment of the bird’s flight, the one where they are gliding through the air.
When Jacques Ellul examines the effect “technique” has on social relationships, political structures, and economics he touches on many interesting points that fascinated me as a reader:
“The state developed political and industrial technique, and later, with Napoleon, military and judicial technique, because it found them to be potent forces against its enemies within and without. The state protected the ‘arts and the sciences’, not out of greatness of spirit or concern for civilization, but out of the instinct of power” – Jacques Ellul
Ellul draws a likeness to himself as a physician in an epidemic, where he is the only one capable of seeing the disease spreading around him. A bit of a Messias complex, perhaps?
Even though the book becomes taxing to read when Jacques stack historical fact after historical fact on the poor reader (with very few references handed out), there are enough paragraphs filled with elegantly woven words which makes it worth it. Case in point is this setting:
As a matter of fact, reality is itself a combination of determinisms, and freedom is completely without meaning unless it is related to necessity, unless it represents victory over necessity. To say that freedom is graven in the nature of man, is to say that man is free because he obeys his nature, or, to put it another way, because he is conditioned by his nature. This is nonesense.” – Jacques Ellul
The book swept me away to a deep dive inside my thinking cap and the unique message that Ellul brings forth was a refreshing provocation of the view I have on the world. Even if the book can be a bit on the denser side (especially midway through), it is a satisfying feeling having read it.
You don’t have to agree with Ellul’s philosophy or position to fully enjoy the book, but it is necessary to like history and have an open mind. If you like to taste new ideas with your reading mind, this book should be on your reading list.
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