ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 11, Number 3 (August, 2014)

ISSUE NUMBER 25

A review of Jacques Ellul and the Technological Society in the 21st Century. (Helena Jerónimo, Jose L. Garcia and Carl Mitcham (Editors). Springer-Verlag, 2013.

Reviewed by Dr. Maximiliano E. Korstanje
(Department of Economics, University of Palermo, Argentina)

Translated into English by the author.

Jacques Ellul has an immense arc as philosopher, economist and writer. The themes approached by Ellul ranged from technology, economy and sociology towards philosophy. This book (17 chapters) is edited by three senior academics and explores the connection in capitalism between technology and human agency: 1) Is technology functional to the interests of humankind? 2) Is it an instrument of individual and social control? What is important to discuss is the legacy of Ellul, who was a critic of the technological world of the 20th century, as well as his contradictions. The preliminary chapters are oriented to explain the reception and evolution of Ellul in United States as well as his view on the actual problems of ecology we are experiencing. The second section points to the cultural glitches in communication processes. The final section makes a theological journey into the cosmology of modern world.

The main thesis of Ellul was that technology oppresses human beings by eroding their tradition and ability to imagine. As such, the ongoing advance of technology not only reduces the scope of symbols and symbolism but changes radically the capacity of culture to produce meaning. Managerial logic undermines authentic democracy when efficacy comes to dominate. But the question is efficacy to which ends? Life becomes entwined in large businesses which are controlled by the monopoly of patent and health services. A network of specialists attempt to discipline the social order to impose a limited body of knowledge that supposedly will mitigate the consequences of decision-making. As a pretext of intervention, the risk allows the adoption of policies which otherwise would not be accepted. However, the paradox is that any human intervention on nature generates new uncontemplated threats.

This book reminds that positive reception of Ellul’s theory in the US depended on the many elements including religious and psychological factors. In religious terms it was possible to say that technology, wrapped up in consumerism, defies the Will of God. Many Christians devoted considerable effort in criticizing the role of technology in leading lay people to an unmoral consumerism. Secondly, the fear to atomic powers (post Chernobyl accident) paved the ways for some sentiment of distrust in the technological society more generally.

George Ritzer (Chapter 2) criticizes Ellul because of his radicalism in respect to the concept of efficiency and technology. Mitcham and Alonso go in another direction by all three highlight that Ellul was a fore-runner in alerting us to the negative effects of capitalism. Like Weber and Baudrillard, Ellul not only developed a negative view of efficiency, but also of the technology which daily reinforces the logic of alienation and work-force exploitation. So what then is the relation between technology and efficiency?

Alerts posed by Ellul on the pervasive nature of technology in producing information as well as the decline of democracy, are two of the seminal points of entry this project presents. The role journalism in boosting or undermining a presidential candidate can create a pseudo-reality to disarticulate the critical view of public opinion (Berlusconi would rank high in Ellul’s hall of nightmares). Business corporations have designed their own project for this new world, and propaganda has penetrated all aspects promotional industrial societies. This leads democracy to a paradox. Ellul realized that democracy rests on shaky foundation because its persistence depends upon the correct use of propaganda to protect the interests of status quo. If the technology is given to protect the exploitation of many in few hands, efficiency is bad. The goals of propaganda are not to simply produce information but to paralyze critical thought by the introduction of “mediocre” desires. At the time, the rates of unemployment are higher than ever, employed workers spent more time at their work-desks than other generations. Alonso claims that cyber-terrorism and hackers exhibit a kind of ‘spirit of freedom’ today.

 

This book represents a fertile ground to discuss seriously what world we want. Though it rescues the contributions of Ellul from oblivion, some chapters exert an interesting criticism on the view he had on technology or the potential applications it can be. Time has shown that Ellul deserves recognition and admiration for many reasons but paramount among them is that as technology produced further information society declined in its ability to cope with it. This has not been a neutral process. In a world where the censorship is through over exposure, ignorance is not determined by the lack of knowledge, but by the exaggeration of information which leads to a deeper decline of the meaning.