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A lesson in morality...
on 8 August 2013
Ellul's magnum opus is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and rewards patience with his constant carping about how others ostensibly taking a critical line about technology are wrong in their thinking for various reasons. This doesn't get resolved until near the end, when he properly explains his own, rather fatalistic position about the extent to which we have forgotten the aims of technique (as he calls it, meaning the application of system as much as the use of technological instruments). In the vacuum created by our forgetfulness, technique has developed a trajectory of its own, into which we are all trapped, and behave like the statistics it insists we are. His prognosis is certainly rather gloomy, and much of what he presaged in this book has played out in the abominable amorality of technology and the vacuity of its apologists. That they, too, will be swallowed up in its inexorable progress isn't much consolation.
Ellul gets the invasion into our very being required by participation in a technological society, its intimidating demand for conformism in the name of efficiency and the uselessness of art or protest in the face of its overwhelming force. He even demonstrates exactly how such activities actually support the domination of technique in their very opposition. He is fairly scathing, too, about some of its great achievements: hygiene, longevity, education, communication, mostly because he sees these as an extension of the technological project rather than as supporting a society committed to enabling fulfilment of potential or heterogeneous alternatives. But in this deeply searching examination of the qualities of technique, Ellul admits he cannot tell what the alternative might have been. If protest is futile, so is analysis, and whilst it is not possible to see any mitigation of the tendencies of technique as he explains it (on the contrary, it has only intensified in its domination), this ultimately becomes a book without a purpose given humankind's defeat by the forces it set in motion 200 years ago.
This is a champion read, and takes some serious concentration. The combination of Ellul's dense prose and the extremely small typeface made this a real challenge across its 400 pages. But Ellul's insights remain relevant, unlike so many of the futurologists he satirises towards the end, and his conceptual grasp of the implications for society of technique as he describes it are a match for anyone.