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This Is Water
Wading into Ellul
The problem I’ve found with reading Jacques Ellul is that it is stultifying to figure out what this mad Frenchman is trying to say without reading a ton of his works.1 And I’d add a second problem, that as you wade into reading him and haven’t quite figured out what he is saying, you get rather depressed along the way. After all, he describes the desiccatory effects technical thinking has had on our culture. The word there is “had.” He does do prediction, but most of his work is historical reflection, a societal autopsy. What he is describing already occurred. So, the reader is not left with the option of saying, “Oh no, this bad. I really must do something about this, something to keep the really bad thing from happening.” Ellul would say that kind of response is not only quaint but proves his point. The really bad is already here. And a part of the really bad is that no one even realizes it.
Drawing on the old conundrum of trying to convince a fish of the reality of water, in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, David Foster Wallace said,
The capital t Truth is about life before death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness, awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water,” “This is water.” It’s unimaginably hard to do this.
David Foster Wallace’s admonition to do the hard work of becoming aware of reality is the best way to introduce Ellul’s work. This was Ellul’s goal, though he isn’t as concise as Wallace.
At the heart of Ellul’s work is the concept of the technical society.2 Our modern reading eyes immediately think he is about to discuss how digital devices disrupt our lives. Maybe he’ll offer some best practices3 for doing a digital detox, we think. This is not primarily what he is saying, and he goes to great lengths to disabuse his readers of this notion. Ellul’s thesis is not primarily about machines as such but how our relationship with machines has changed how we think and how we act. He argues that the early thinking leading up to the Industrial Revolution was trying to figure out how to incorporate machines into the world of men. But then, this goal changed throughout the 1800s and into the twentieth century. Now, the goal is to figure out how to incorporate men into the world of machines. And we have been highly (economically speaking) successful at this second goal, all the while tearing our humanity down around our heads. This slight-blessing-major-curse facet of our global epistemology is what Ellul is describing in what he calls the technical/technological society.
And do not confuse “society” with “culture” or “community.” He isn’t saying that there is now a super-motivated group of techno-optimists or transhumanists geeking out in a dischord channel or late-night posting on an anon account. He would be singularly discouraged by these groups and point to them as symptoms of the disease he is diagnosing. But he would also reassert that the technological society is a-cultural, affecting every culture and community.
So what does he mean? Simply put, Ellul is charting a major shift at the core of what it means to be human, a shift to organizing everything around effeciency and progress. He isn’t against efficiency as such. He is terrified of efficiency as the controlling epistemology at the core of human existence.
I’ll give two signs that this all-consuming efficiency mindset is in play. First, whenever you hear “best practices” brought up, you are in the realm of technical thinking. From processing email, to cooking a meal, to navigating friendships and interpersonal relationships of all sorts, everyone today is looking for the one best way to do a particular thing. What is the secret algorithm to happiness and ease in this one particular area? This creates one lie and two bluffs. The lie is that there is one best way to conduct every facet of our lives. The complexity of our world and the intricacy of each human, made in the image of God, much less the intricate humans in hundreds of different relationships, will not yield to an algorithmic reductionism promising maximum efficiency. You cannot apply an algorithm to much of what we call human existence. Then there is the first bluff that efficiency algorithms actually bestow efficiency. Have computers and digital technology actually made us more efficient? More economically productive, yes, but more efficient? No. We are, on the whole, doing more, faster, and at a much lower quality. The Internet is incredible. Look at its crowning achievement—Youtube and TikTok. And that leads to the second bluff, that the efficient life is the happy life. How are we doing with all of the saved time and higher standards of living? We’ve never seen a more depressed, medicated, and distracted generation of humans. Max efficiency most assuredly doesn’t produce quality or happiness.
The second sign of the technical society that I’ll note in passing is imagining the human as a machine. We are told we need to rewire our brains to solve our problems. We are constantly augmenting our bodies to enhance (numb?) the human experience—phones, connected watches, augmented reality goggles, Neuralink. The assumption behind this cyborg thinking is that the human is an outdated piece of tech that needs upgrading. Could we instead be a plant that needs the right environment to grow? And yet this human-as-machine is leading to a verifiable decrease in our standard of life. If we are told we are machines, we shouldn’t be surprised that we begin to feel like them—the ever-increasing demand for higher rates of productivity under the gaze of a technician, emotionless, incapable of a relationship beyond something that feels like a conversation between an AI chatbot.
Again, this all sounds very depressing, and some of it really is. Reality is like that sometimes. But it is not hopeless. Ellul is a better commentator on social-technical history than he is a theologian. There is great hope in the Christian faith, but more on that in another essay. And if you’re a leader and realize how the technical society is both marring you and making you, increasing ROI but gutting team culture and your employees’ job satisfaction, there is hope too.
For now, you just need to see that this water.
So far, I’ve read The Technological Society, Propaganda, The Technological Bluff, Autopsy of Revolution, The Political Illusion, Anarchy and Christianity, and What I Believe. So I’ve read seven of the sixty books he wrote, not to mention another 600 articles.
Ellul actually wanted to title his book The Technical Society rather than The Technological Society. But his editor had already planned to write a book with that title and so discouraged Ellul from doing so. The editor never wrote the book. Never the less, throughout his writing, Ellul with use both “technical” and “technological” interchangeably.
More on this a little later.