The Radical Techno-Critic Jacques Ellul


This is the fourth of a set of twelve course notes written in 1993 and revised across 1994 and 1995 for Technology and Human Existence, a half-semester first year option on the philosophy of technology.

Jacques Ellul and the Technological Society

In this fourth set of notes I discuss the views of someone who adopts a position on the left, perhaps indeed the far left, of the spectrum of views outlined in my first set of notes: Jacques Ellul. The reading by him is very difficult; to the extent that you have been able to make any sense of it at all, you will probably have found his claims very exaggerated and extreme. Thus, what I want to do now is to go through this reading in an effort to make sense of Ellul’s central concepts and claims. But let me first make a few general observations.

Ellul is possibly the most notorious of the radical critics of technology. The first edition of his well-known and influential book, The Technological Society, appeared in France as long ago as 1953, and has continued to enrage other writers on science and technology ever since. The American political scientist Langdon Winner, who is genuinely sympathetic towards Ellul, concedes that his book is not an attempt at any systematic theory of the technological society, but rather a catalogue of assertions and illustrations all buzzing around one particular claim.1 This claim, the central thesis of Ellul’s book, is that in modern society something he calls technique has become autonomous, an all-pervading, inescapable force which shapes every aspect of our lives. This claim can spelled out in simpler language as follows: according to Ellul the fundamental law and dynamic of modern society is the incessant extension and improvement—what he calls self-augmentation—of its technical means and power. Furthermore, this general, inbuilt tendency of modern society makes it increasingly difficult to realise and maintain certain human values. In particular, it makes it increasingly difficult to realise human freedom. Finally, Ellul believes that there are no real possibilities of curbing, changing or deflecting this dynamic of modern society.

Clearly, if this central claim is right, then modern technological society is nothing less than a prison without doors or windows from which there can be no escape.2 Paradoxically, though, Ellul insists that modern technological society only has its enslaving dynamic because, as he puts it, humanity does not pull itself together and assert itself.3 That is, in modern society technology is only an autonomous and detrimental force because humanity allows it to be. You can see that there is something of a contradiction here. Ellul never bothers to clear this implicit contradiction up, no more than he ever really bothers to provide much argument for his central claim in the first place. Instead, he indulges in dramatic exaggeration, in sweeping and total generalisation, in order to create an impressionistic picture of technology and technological thinking as exercising total sway in modern society. It is thus not surprising that he has so many critics.

Now ultimately I must agree with the majority of Ellul’s critics that we are not in fact totally enslaved by technology. Nonetheless, there does seem to me to be much that is right in what Ellul says. Moreover, his exaggerated and over-generalising style does have its point: It is Ellul’s means of shaking, of provoking us into an awareness of just how much our individual existence is conditioned and shaped by the artificial environment created by technology. Technology is indeed everywhere, so much so that we no longer notice its total presence. Ellul’s annoyingly sweeping style does at least get us to notice this fact. It thus puts us in a position to ask whether the glitter of our latest gadgets does not seduce us into dependence on them, so that we can no longer eat breakfast without the radio, travel to work without the walkman, sit at home without the video or go on a beach side holiday without the water scooter.

In order to unlock just what does seem to be right in Ellul, we must try to crack his rather cryptic and declamatory code. If you look carefully at the reading, you will see that it is structured around explaining and elaborating Ellul’s central thesis that in modern society technology has become an autonomous and deleterious force. From p.119 to page 122, Ellul tries to explain what he means by that concept in terms of which he formulates this thesis. This central concept is that of technique. Then, from p.122 to p.125, he explains what he means by saying that in modern society technique has become autonomous. This is followed by a discussion of what social forces might act to counter the power of technique, a discussion extending from pages 126 to 130 and dealing specifically with the state on page 130. The conclusion of this discussion is that none of these possibilities are genuine, so now Ellul thinks he is justified in asserting his central thesis, namely, the autonomy of technique. He then concludes on pages 133 to 136 with some remarks about the political and moral authority of scientists in modern society.

Given this structure, we at least know where to look in our search for intelligibility. I want to start with Ellul’s concept of technique, and thus with his discussion on pages 119 to 122. Now by technique he does not mean what we normally understand by this word. We often mean by this word something like skill: the technique of Horowitz the pianist, the technique of Rembrandt the painter and the technique of Bradman the batsman. But this is not what Ellul means by technique. What he means by this word is intimated by two things he says: Firstly, the concept of technique must be distinguished from that of a machine; it is, he says, “a radical error to think of technique and machine as interchangeable.” (p.122) Secondly, he insists that while these two concepts are not identical, they are nonetheless related. He appears to think that there are at least three ways in which these two concepts are related:

  1. “Technique certainly began with the machine” (p.119); the modern world, the world of technique, would not exist without the machine (see p.120).

  2. “Technique integrates the machine into society” (p.121); it is what enables a machine to play a part in the social process of production. Without technique, the machine is just a lump of metal;

  3. “The machine … represents the ideal to which technique strives” (p.120). That is, technique strives to function, to operate, like a machine.

These remarks are all pretty obscure. In order to make sense of them and Ellul’s concept of technique itself, the best thing to do is to develop our own conception of technique. If our concept of technique allows us to make sense of how technique and the machine are at once different yet related in the three ways mentioned, then we can reasonably conclude that our conception of technique is also Ellul’s.

To this end, consider a relatively complex piece of technology such as a steam engine. There are two things to note about such a machine. Firstly, it is designed to function in a certain way in order to realise a certain goal, namely, a revolving drive wheel. It is designed to burn coal or wood, which produces heat, which generates steam, which drives a piston, which in turn causes a drive wheel to revolve. But if you think about it, the ultimate goal or purpose of a steam engine cannot just be a revolving drive wheel. For if the wheel does not turn with sufficient power, or if it takes inordinate amounts of coal and water before the wheel does turn with sufficient power, the whole machine would not be very useful. Clearly, before a steam engine or any other machine can do useful work, it must perform efficiently. So the goal and purpose for which the steam engine is designed is really that it turn the drive wheel efficiently, i.e., with sufficient power to justify all the costs involved in getting it to do so.4 Thus, notions of efficiency, of working efficiently with the available resources and equipment, are built into the steam engine.

Secondly, as we have already seen, before a steam engine will work optimally, it must organise and structure its environment appropriately. A relatively complex technological system like a steam engine integrates itself into the environment by modifying and partially integrating its environment into it. A regular supply of fuel and water must be organised, workers must be trained to operate it, their shifts must be arranged, regular maintenance and supply of spare parts must be ensured, and so on. Now clearly, to say that the steam engine does all this organising and structuring is to speak figuratively; the steam engine itself does not literally get up and build railways from the coal mines to its site, or employ workers to operate it. Rather, the introduction of the steam engine into such and such an environment creates what I shall call a technical imperative. A technical imperative is a demand placed on people by a technological system; it is a demand that these people undertake this or that action in order to ensure the effective functioning of the system. Thus, once they have introduced a steam engine into a certain environment with certain purposes in mind, people find they must do certain other things. In particular, they must first create and then maintain the further technological systems required for the steam engine’s effective functioning.

Now just what do these people do when they create and maintain the various support systems required by the steam engine? Clearly, they will organise various human beings, machines and resources into interlocking, step-by-step procedures governed by timetables, plans and schedules. And in doing this their primary consideration will be efficiency. So you see that in a certain sense constructing the support systems for a steam engine’s effective functioning is like constructing the steam engine itself. Just as the steam engine itself was designed with a view to realising a certain goal efficiently, namely, a drive wheel spinning with sufficient power, so, too, the systems in which it must be embedded must be constructed according to criteria of efficiency. Certain step-by-step procedures and routines must be designed with a view to efficiently achieving a certain goal, namely, the supply, operation and maintenance of the steam engine.

Now I think that by a technique Ellul mostly, if not always, means any such ordering of humans, machines and resources into a rule-governed process designed to ensure the efficient realisation of a certain goal. Certainly, this seems to underlie the only relatively explicit definition he gives of this notion. In the Preface to the American translation of his book he defines technique as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” 5 (This passage is not in the reading.)

That the conception of technique which we have just developed is indeed Ellul’s is indicated by the fact that our conception is on the one hand not the same concept as that of a machine, yet on the other has just those three relations to the latter concept which we found in Ellul’s text. For what we have called a technique is not itself a machine or piece of equipment, but rather an ordering of these and of course human beings as well into a process which efficiently uses them to attain some pre-given goal. Yet because technique as we understand it includes machines within it, a technique in our sense also cannot exist without the machine; it in must indeed begin with the machine, just as Ellul says. Similarly, it is clear that technique in our sense is precisely what integrates the mere machine, the mere moving lump of metal, into society. Finally, on our reading, too, the machine will represent the ideal toward which technique strives. For clearly the goal people have in setting up a suitable environment for their steam engine is that this environment work like clockwork, that is, like a machine, in support of the steam engine.

So it looks as though we have identified what Ellul mostly means by technique.6 Of course, there are places in his text where this interpretation will not work. On p.131 he speaks of “the diversity of techniques necessary for the production of a motion picture” and as examples of such techniques he cites amongst other things “make-up techniques.” Presumably, a make-up technique will not fit our interpretation all that well. But I think that this just indicates that Ellul is actually rather careless and slipshod in his use of the word.

Now that we know what technique is, we can pass on to work out what Ellul means by the autonomy of technique. When Ellul says that in today’s society technique has become an autonomous force over which we have no control, he apparently means that it has become self-generating. That is, Ellul believes that in contemporary society the activity of creating and maintaining techniques has become, as he puts it, “… a self-generating process: technique engenders itself.”7 Modern society has got to the point where technique has taken on a life of its own: our society finds itself ceaselessly driven to invent and implement new techniques. Ellul calls this autonomous process of ceaseless innovation and technological change the self-augmentation of technique (see p.125).

Now when Ellul says speaks of the self-augmenting character of technique, we have to be careful. Ellul is not careful; in fact, he is extraordinarily careless. And so you can easily get the impression that he thinks that all technique as such has some inherent tendency to improve and augment itself. But this is wrong; according to Ellul, technique is not inherently or essentially self-augmenting, but it has become so in our modern society. Why is this?

Once again, everything seems to hinge on the sheer size, inescapability and ubiquity of technology in modern society. Ellul calls the whole interlocking web of techniques the ensemble of techniques. And in modern society this ensemble has grown so complex and ubiquitous that it has become self-augmenting. There is so to speak a critical mass of technological sophistication and complexity which, once reached, permits the development and implementation of new techniques to take on a life of its own. Development and implementation of new techniques becomes an inherent tendency of society itself, its very way of life. It would appear that the only way to eliminate this tendency would be to unravel and simplify the web of technological systems which constitute society8—something which Ellul regards as practically impossible.

But is this right? Does it make sense to suggest that once a certain degree of complexity and size is reached, technique takes on a life of its own? And even if it does make sense, is it true to say that in today’s existing society technique actually has taken on a life of its own? Consider a society in the earliest stages of industrialisation. An example from our own history would be late eighteenth century England. In this society, things such as the steam engine are invented which create certain opportunities for people to make more money, to gain more power or whatever. Various individuals with sufficient money and power act to avail themselves of these opportunities; in so doing, they initiate the process of technising their environment and society. As we have seen many times now, an item of technology such as a steam engine requires for its efficient functioning that its environment be moulded to fit it. Use of the steam engine is indeed a certain technique of supply, operation and maintenance. Now at these earlier stages the overall level of technological development is relatively low, and thus so is the degree of technological complexity. Problems of coordinating systems of supply, operation and maintenance are relatively simple and small-scale. They are solvable by relatively simple mechanisms of supply and support. Conceivably, when a steam-driven factory is introduced into a certain community, all its needs for coal can be met by having coal shipped in from the local colliery and all its needs for water can be met by diverting water from the local river. Similarly, the actual quantities of coal and water required will be relatively small; thus, no particularly massive engineering or organisational projects will have to be initiated in order to get things going and keep them running smoothly. Horse and cart and a simple canal will do. Planning, building and running all these things can be done by relatively few people who have no particularly great specialist skills in these things and who do a whole lot of other things besides. These are the days of relatively small-time entrepreneur capitalism, where the owner of the factory is clearly identifiable and has a large say in all aspects of its daily operation. At this stage, technological progress is more or less under control: people with money and influence initiate it when they think it will further their interests, and resist it when they think it will harm them.

But what happens to this society as its various techniques progressively become more numerous, complex and interconnected? What happens when isolated and relatively simple techniques become more complex and coalesce to form a web of technological systems? Clearly, the task of maintaining a system which genuinely and efficiently intermeshes with its environment becomes more and more complex, so much so that eventually it is too difficult for one or even a few individuals; the owner-factory manager disappears, to be replaced by whole teams and hierarchies of specialist managers and technicians, each responsible for only a part of the whole task of co-ordination and organisation. But these problems have become more difficult not merely in a simple quantitative sense. They are also qualitatively different. For as individual technological systems and the whole web in which they are embedded become more and more complex, the likelihood dramatically increases that the effects of events and actions far removed from a given technological system will reverberate through the entire system to adversely affect this particular system. In short, the more complex and extensive the whole web of technological systems becomes, the more changeable and uncertain the environment of any one individual system becomes. Consequently, the links connecting each individual system with its environment become individually more precarious. The system must compensate for this, and basically it will do this in two ways. Firstly, it can expand to absorb into itself systems with which it was previously related. In this way, it brings these systems under its control. The system responds to the increase in the complexity of the external environment by expanding, thereby increasing its own internal complexity.

But secondly and for our purposes more importantly, since it cannot bring all the systems in its environment under its control, a system will seek to ensure that it is never too dependent on any one particular set of links. It must work to minimise its dependence on those existing links which it cannot bring under its control.9 And it must work to ensure that it retains the capacity to establish alternative links easily. Clearly, the best way for the system to do this is for it to always be on the lookout for new and more efficient ways of doing what it already does. It must, for example, be on the lookout for machines which require less fuel, manpower and maintenance than its existing ones; it must be on the lookout for means which enable it to deal efficiently with more distant suppliers of its inputs and more distant consumers of its output. And it must be on the lookout for new and quicker means of communicating with existing suppliers and consumers. In short, it must always be on the lookout for possibilities of technical improvement. In general, the technological and organisational improvement of current operating efficiency is a means of counteracting dependence on an uncertain environment, both before change in this environment occurs, and when such change occurs. But the irony is that technical improvement itself increases the overall complexity and size of technological society. It thus itself increases the uncertainty and changeability of the environments in which individual systems find themselves. Consequently, the more complex technological society becomes, the more frequently individual technological systems will both seek and be forced to undertake technical improvement in order to maintain themselves. Increasingly, techniques will only maintain themselves if they improve themselves.

Now if this is the case, then clearly, in the course of technological development the need for individual technological systems to lift their game will present itself more and more often. Eventually, it will present itself so often that the individual systems will see their own technological improvement as part of their very existence. They will develop their own research and development facilities, governmental institutions for technological research and development will spring up and universities will move from being merely institutions of “pure” learning and research to being institutions which also develop and implement new technologies. Clearly, at this point, our imaginary society has reached a point where technique has become self-augmenting. For it has become a society in which technological change and improvement is an inherent and indispensable feature of the social order. It has become a technological society in the sense intended by Ellul.

So now we have at least a plausible story to tell about what Ellul means by the self-augmenting character of technological society. Furthermore, this story enables us to explain how and why Ellul should think that under certain conditions technique can become an autonomous and irresistible force. For it is a story about how technological improvement can progress from being something undertaken sporadically and more or less as a matter of choice to being something which is necessary for the very stability of society itself. After a certain degree of complexity has been reached, the web of technological systems only retains its stability if the individual systems within it are continuously trying to lift their individual games. Technological change and improvement has become an inherent technological imperative; it is irresistible in the sense that without it the social order is destabilised. I take it that this is what Ellul means when he speaks of how technique can become an autonomous, irresistible force.

But is today’s society, the one we actually live in, a technological society in which the improvement of technique is a fundamental law? Above I indicated a few symptoms one might expect to find in any society in which technique has become autonomous and self-augmenting. These were that individual technological systems come to possess their own research and development facilities; that governmental institutions for technological research and development spring up; and that universities become institutions which engage not just in “pure” research and teaching, but also in the development and implementation of new technologies. Clearly, all these things are to be found in our society. Moreover, our society is, simply as a matter of brute fact, being carried away on a wave of technological revolution. So there are some grounds for thinking that our society is a technological society in Ellul’s radical sense.

Of course, that technique should become an autonomous force in society does not mean that it is a force for evil. Yet Ellul does believe that the autonomy of technique is not a good thing. In particular, he believes that it robs us of our freedom. How so? Ellul seems to mention at least three ways in which the relentless forward push to greater technological complexity and sophistication steadily robs us of freedom:

  1. It forces us to continually adapt and accommodate our social, political and private existence to its needs. The improvement of technique knows no bounds; it penetrates into the social, political and personal lives of people, bulldozing all before it: the individual can no longer disengage him- or herself from society. The technical means are so numerous and powerful “that they invade his whole life and make it impossible for him to escape the collective phenomena. There is no longer an uninhabited place, or any other geographical locale, for the would-be solitary. It is no longer possible to refuse entrance into a community to a highway, a high-tension line, or a dam.” (p.123)

  2. It undermines humanity’s sense of the secret and sacred, and replaces it with a conception of the world as simply a realm of opportunities for us to exercise our various techniques (see pp.124-125). As Ellul puts it, “technique denies mystery” and seeks to “transform everything into means.” (p.125) Of course, science, too, denies mystery; consequently, given Ellul’s assumption that the sacred is fundamentally something mysterious, science, too, must destroy our sense of the sacred. But science, unlike technique, does not subject the once sacred to the further humiliation of becoming a means to the satisfaction of some end. Technique does, and thus it more radically transforms our experience of the world. Where once we experienced the world as housing the secret and sacred, we now experience it as a realm of opportunities for applying our techniques.

  3. Most significantly, the autonomy of technique ultimately leads to a society whose general direction of development is radically uncertain and unknowable, so that the very idea of “seeing where society is going” loses its meaning. You will recall that in the first lecture I pointed out how the more complex and sophisticated new technologies become, the more difficult it becomes to say just what effects their development and introduction will ultimately have. It therefore becomes harder and harder to decide in advance whether humanity will or will not be helped by a proposed new technology. Now this must lead to a particularly nasty situation if Ellul is right in his claim that technological society is subject to an inbuilt pressure to develop and implement new technologies. For if this society must continually generate new and improved technologies; and if it becomes harder and harder to say just what new technologies will do for us: then technological society tends towards a limit at which we can no longer rationally determine in advance whether new technologies are good for us or not. At this point, it becomes indeterminate whether the well-functioning and forward march of the total web of systems helps humanity or not. Once it has reached this limit, technological innovation will have to give up all claim to be guided by considerations of human well-being. For technological innovation can only be guided by such considerations if it can determine in advance how its promised fruit really will affect humanity. Once it has reached this limit, the whole process of improving and extending technique will become mindless in the sense that it has no intrinsic goal or function beyond that of doing more and more better and better. Clearly, if technological society does tend towards this limit, then it does indeed threaten us with a very radical and fundamental loss of freedom. In effect, it threatens to undermine the very possibility of politics as we know it. For politics rests on the assumption that it is indeed possible for us to see where our society is going.

Now if our own modern society is tending towards the limit of completely mindless technological development, then it will indeed find itself faced with what Ellul calls “a choice of all or nothing.” (p.124) Ellul insists that “(i)f we make use of technique, we must accept the specificity and autonomy of its ends, and the totality of its rules.” (p.124) That is, once technological society has become sufficiently complex, enjoyment of its numerous and tasty fruits comes at the price of accepting that it has its own intrinsic tendency, namely, unceasing improvement and extension, whose overall direction and consequences are radically uncertain and thus beyond our control. Beyond a certain point, we are not only not at the wheel, we cannot even know where we are going. So our choice is stark indeed: Either we sit back and enjoy the ride, or we get out altogether. Either we accept our lot as caught up in a process of technological improvement which has no final goal beyond that of being able to do more and more better and better. Or we totally turn our backs on this process. There is no option in between these extremes.

As if this weren’t bad enough! Thus far it seems we still have a choice, although only a very stark and radical one. Thus far, Ellul still wants to allow us “the narrow ridge of a decision with regard to technique.” (p.123) We can still choose either to accept technique or to reject it. But on pages 126 to 133 he contradicts these his own claims by maintaining that in reality we have no means at all which would allow us to resist technique. He considers a number of possibilities: our moral sense, public opinion, the social structure and finally the state. In the end, he rejects them all; they are either too weak, or already too complicit in the process of technological improvement to provide genuine resistance. Clearly, this is just a manifestation of the contradiction I mentioned at the outset. On the one hand, Ellul wants to allow that there still is the possibility of a solution, albeit a very radical one. On the other, he repeatedly says such things as that “(t)echnique is essentially independent of the human being, who finds himself naked and disarmed before it. Modern man divines that there is only one reasonable way out: to submit and take what profit he can from what technique otherwise so richly bestows upon him. If he is of a mind to oppose it, he finds himself really alone.” (p.130)

I do not want to deal with the arguments Ellul adduces to show that really there is no way out of modern technological society. For we could only genuinely assess whether Ellul is right in this most negative part of his argument if we had some idea of what it could mean to reject technique. Only if we knew quite concretely what it would mean to resist technique could we really determine whether such resistance was a real possibility for us. But Ellul never makes clear just what one would be choosing if in making his choice of all or nothing, one decided to take nothing of or from technique. Would this mean a return to pre-industrial society? Or would it mean the development of a new kind of technique which, while allowing us at least some of the benefits of our present technological society, avoids destructive tendencies to centralisation and incessant improvement? If the latter were the case, then Ellul could be seen as pointing to the need for a fundamental change in our approach to technology. He could perhaps be seen as advocating some notion of an alternative technology of the kind proposed by Ernst Schumacher and Barry Commoner. But Ellul never makes clear just what his position is. And so it is not worthwhile speculating either on what he means by a rejection of technique or on why he thinks that when all is said and done, the possibility of rejecting technique is very slight.

Rather than dealing with these very pessimistic arguments and claim, I want to conclude by asking whether there are any empirical indications that our modern technological society is indeed, as Ellul alleges, heading towards a situation where the process of technological development is mindless, that is, where it is no longer guidable by considerations of human well-being. Surely, in any society which is heading in this direction we can expect to find at least two things.

Firstly, we can expect to find is a growing public concern about the effects and impact of technological development. This will manifest itself in calls for greater public control over technological development and implementation. The call will go out for some kind of deliberate attempt to work out in advance what the likely effects of this or that new technology will be. These attempts will be made and in the process people will discover that working out in advance just what new technologies will do is an extraordinarily difficult business. They will discover that in assessing long-term and distant effects, fundamental assumptions will have to be made which, if they prove wrong or incomplete, will render all the often quite massive calculations and predictions quite pointless. And they will discover that before they can determine whether this or that technology will be good for humanity, they have to confront issues of a decidedly non-technological nature, such as what kind of creatures we humans ought to be and what kind of world we ought to live in.

Now what I have just described quite abstractly has already begun to take place in our society, in particular in America. In the late sixties and seventies, people grew so concerned about the impact of technological change that they tried to introduce a thing called “Technology Impact Assessment.” We don’t here much about this in Australia, but it in fact goes hand in hand with something I’m sure you’ve all heard of, namely, “Environmental Impact Assessment”. In fact, in America both kinds of assessment grew up together. And indeed both have encountered the kinds of epistemological problems and problems of value I have just mentioned. People have discovered that it is a very dubious business trying to work out in advance just what a new technology will do, just as they have discovered that it is a very dubious business trying to work out in advance what a new development projects will do to the environment.

Secondly, we can expect to find in any society heading towards the limit of technological mindlessness is the increased public presence of scientists and technicians. This increased public presence will take two forms: firstly, scientists and technicians will themselves increasingly appear in popular magazines, T.V. shows and the like, reassuring us of the immense boons which future technologies will bring. But secondly, as the public becomes more uneasy about our ability to know this in advance, scientists and technicians will be increasingly called upon to express their opinion on the effects of this or that research or development project. In short, scientists and technicians will more frequently appear as key players in the political process of attempting to mediate between proponents and opponents of these projects.

This, too, is something we can already find in contemporary society. In all sorts of popular science magazines and in science shows like Quantum you find scientists cropping up to tell us about the potential and the problems of the latest developments. And in the public debate about whether this or that project should or should not go ahead, scientists and technicians are being called upon to contribute reports and studies which are not strictly scientific papers such as you might find in a scientific or technical journal, but documents in which they have to present scientific arguments and evidence in a way which allows lay people to formulate policy on the basis of these arguments and evidence.

In the last section of his essay, Ellul also touches upon this phenomenon. Much of what he says here smacks of cheap point-scoring; he says, for example, that scientists, when they are not talking about science, mostly talk in platitudes (p.135) But while what Ellul says here is unfair, he is also raising a legitimate question. This is the question of just what role scientific opinion can and ought to play in the public debate concerning new technologies, or indeed the environment and any of the many other social and political problems which scientists and technicians are called upon to address today. He points out that it is one thing to know how to manipulate and alter the human gene pool, something quite different again to know that doing this would “render human nature nobler, more beautiful, and more harmonious.” (p.135) Stating just how the implementation of this technology would lead, step by step, to the realisation of goals as abstract and as global as a nobler human nature would be much more difficult than stating how the introduction of nuclear power would lead to clean, safe and abundant energy. Yet the lesson of our forty year experiment with nuclear power generation seems to be that even in the case of this technology it is by no means easy to state in advance how a worthy human goal will be realised by it. Twenty years ago all sorts of scientific assessments and reports were written detailing the route to a safe, politically acceptable and cost-effective exploitation of nuclear power. But then there was Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and numerous other less spectacular accidents which were only supposed to happen only very infrequently. This experience suggests that there may be definite limits to what we can predict in advance. And I suspect that when Ellul accuses contemporary scientists of just emphasising the benefits of new technology without worrying about its costs, his real point is that they are over-confident about our ability to anticipate in advance just what the new technology will and will not do. I suspect he thinks such scientists believe that they don’t need to worry about the downside of new technology because they are confident they either already know, or will eventually find out, how to avoid it.

At any rate, there is at least some empirical evidence to support Ellul’s claim that modern technological society is tending towards a situation of mindless technological expansion. I am not saying that his analysis is right; in fact, I think that he radically overstates the degree to which technique has us in its grip. But I do think he has made a significant attempt to identify the ways in which technology might not be what we conventionally take it to be, namely, a mere tool standing neutrally at our disposal, such that if the technology is functioning as designed, any unintended bad consequences are simply down to “human error.” In the next two sets of notes I want to look at a concrete case in order to illustrate how the fact that modern technologies come in systems of ever-increasing complexity make for failures which, although not breakdowns in the technology itself, are nonetheless only very implausibly (and unfairly) described as human error. In particular, I want to look at what happened on board the U.S.S. Vincennes when on July 3rd, 1998, it shot down an Iranian passenger plane while on patrol in the Persian Gulf. This case well illustrates how control in a complex technological system can exceed human capacities.


  1. See Winner, “Autonomous Technology”, p.177.

  2. “If we make use of technique, we must accept the specificity and autonomy of its ends, and the totality of its rules. Our own desires and aspirations can change nothing.” (p.124.) But even here there is a slight tentativeness; there is the suggestion that we still have a choice, namely, to use technique or not to use it. Sometimes, it seems that Ellul’s insistence on the sheer power and irresistibility of technique is his way of insisting that “… we are faced with a choice of “all or nothing”.” (p.124) That is, in this way he seeks to dramatise and emphasise the starkness of the only choice he thinks we have.

  3. Thus, Ellul says in the foreword to the American translation, “The reader must always keep in mind the implicit presupposition that if man does not pull himself together and assert himself (or if some other unpredictable but decisive phenomenon does not intervene), then things will go the way I describe.” And in the reading, Ellul speaks of how “(e)very conscious being today is walking the narrow ridge of a decision with regard to technique. He who maintains that he can escape it (the decision, that is—B.C.) is either a hypocrite or unconscious.” (p.123)

  4. Of course, this is a feature of all technologies, even the simplest. Thus, the goal and purpose for which a hammer is designed is that of driving a nail into wood efficiently. But machine technologies like the steam engine, there is a difference. Unlike a hammer, a steam engine is not a tool; a tool is from the very start integrated into a certain activity or trade and evolves out of this trade and with it.

  5. The Technological Society, p.xxv; translated by John Wilkinson, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.

  6. But perhaps we have not. We need to look a little more at Ellul’s claim that technique, although not the same thing as the machine, nonetheless began with it. Ellul is saying here that technique as he understands it first arose with the machine. Now if you interpret Ellul’s notion of technique along our lines, this is indeed trivially true; if technique is defined as the organising of persons and machines into effective technological systems, then it is true by definition that without the machine there would be no technique. But on our reading of technique there seems to be no substantial reason for thus limiting the concept of technique. On our reading, surely even the medieval artisan or merchant had techniques. For they certainly found it necessary every so often to organise at least human beings, tools, animals and the like into rule-governed processes which enabled the efficient realisation of certain goals. Why is the concept of the machine so important to the concept of technique that the former must enter into the definition of the latter? But this was just one part or aspect, occasionally resorted to, of their total activity of making and selling artefacts, or buying and selling diverse wares. With the rise of industrial society, however, this become a task and occupation in itself. For the job of organising and maintaining machines, tools, resources and human beings as processes for efficiently reaching certain goals only blossomed into an ongoing activity and indeed life-time occupation with the rise of industrial society.

  7. The Technological Society, p.87.

  8. This does not necessarily entail a return to past levels of technological sophistication.

  9. As Galbraith points out on p.49 of The New Industrial State, “(t)he first requisite for survival of the techno-structure is that it preserve the autonomy on which its decision-making power depends.”