The Betrayal of Technology

“A principal characteristic of technique … is its refusal to tolerate moral judgments. It is absolutely independent of them and eliminates them from its domain. Technique never observes the distinction between moral and immoral use. It tends on the contrary, to create a completely independent technical morality” (Ellul, The Technological Society, p.97).

I just finished watching this 1-hour documentary on French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul, entitled “The Betrayal of Technology: A Portrait of Jacques Ellul”.

The-technological-society-smallThe film is based on his 1964 book “The Technological Society”. I have yet to read this text — which is quite surprising given its existential musings on the state of humanity’s being-in-the-world of machines. It will definitely be my next read.

The resonance with modern drone warfare – the alienation, the abstraction, the automation – is really quite profound.

Ellul argues that mankind has become dominated by “technologie” – a concept that includes both the physical stuff of technology and machines, but also its underlying logics – of efficiency and order.

Once under our control, technology now controls us.

I think the documentary does a good job of touching on a range of issues that concern Ellul. It has to be said that Ellul has a “grand narrative” – one that some may find off-putting. But there’s something about big thinkers that have always excited me, warts and all. His argument, in a nutshell, is that technology forms a mass of people, and conditions their essential humanity by restricting their freedom and displacing their responsibility.

Indeed, for Ellul, freedom and technology contradict each other.

In “traditional” societies, technology was held back by traditional mores – such as religion and custom. The earth was seen as “mother” and things like iron tools could not even be used upon the soil. In ancient Egypt, for example, wheels were not permitted because they resembled the zodiac.  But then in the 14th and 15th centuries people began to question tradition. Science discovered a series of what could be thought of as “truths”. This similarly produced the idea that those left “behind” were savages and not human. Such “progress” destroyed traditional ways of life, universes, and existential understandings of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Technology has thus destroyed whatever was once held sacred, and especially “nature” – as it works through and in spite of it. Moreover, now technology is seen as sacred as an end in itself.

Every technological step forward thus has its price. What price do we pay for the drone? What is the cost for a new order of things?

Ellul, later in the interview, states that “technologists” (and technocrats?) do not approve of people expressing a moral or ethical judgement, and especially a spiritual judgement. This is because a technologist is conditioned by their training and operates on the inside of a techno-efficient logic. But this expression of morality is the highest freedom of mankind.

Living in a technological society likewise has its psychological costs. In many ways, cities are completely dead environments, and city dwellers suffer from depression because of this and because of the pace that they now live, and the loneliness they feel. And for the relief of these psychological maladies – there is technology. Technology thus becomes the cause and panacea of our mental ailments.

Just as deep-sea divers have all kinds of technology to keep them underwater, so do we, as children of modernity, immunize ourselves against the throes of a technological deadspace populated by a range of “diversions” and technological amusements.

For Ellul, mankind, living in a technological world, has given up on its its independence, its essential “being-with-other-humans” in exchange for consumer products and a hollow kind of existential security provided by commodities. As Heidegger would perhaps think, from “being-with-others” to “being-with-things”.

The questions to ask are therefore as follows: Are we able to accept that we are dominated by technology? That it oppresses us? That it obliges us? That it conditions us? For Ellul, freedom begins when we realize this – and then refuse the destiny of technology by remaining, above all, people. No more, no less.

With the rise of drone warfare in the distant borderlands of our planet and in the intimate spaces of the American city, Ellul’s thoughts may yet provide a fascinating entry-point into understanding the existential changes (rather than the purely legal, moral, or geopolitical transformations) of life under drones.

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