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    Jacques Ellul, Prophet of the Tech Age

    A Christian outlook helps us to weather the technological society.

    By Joshua J. Whitfield

    June 14, 2024
    • George Marsh

      Thanks for this fine essay. Making peace with a soulless system calls for an attirude of non-aggression and creative love. Gandhi, King, Tutu and Mandela follow Jesus and Francis of Assisi, and each inspires us to do likewise. The humility we accept as Christians or humanists links us together as one human race and one among countless creatures, gifts of one Creator, who calls us to evolve in maturity and love to live and travel in the realm of the Ultimate Mystery.

    Reading Jacques Ellul is like reading one of the minor Hebrew prophets. I picture him like Habakkuk upon his tower, awaiting an unnerving vision’s appointed time, fearing some uncertain scourge, questioning God. Ellul is better known as a critic of technology and less as a theologian, but I find it hard to draw a clear line between the two. A sociologist and cold chronicler of reality, at times he also bore the prophet’s mantle, offering a rhetorical mix of dread, faith, and hope. He spoke in absolutes, talked about the end of the world. He wanted us to see.

    In substance, though he is troubling, he is not discouraging. He is too easily dismissed as a pessimist. Because of his prophetic tone and theological conviction, he is easily ignored. Mostly forgotten by optimists awaiting another vision – a technological recapitulation of all things, a generated Eden, a different sort of Zion – he is by most philosophers of technology and ethicists today footnoted and discounted within a sentence or two. Even those who barely know what he is on about recognize his foreboding, his theodicean anger, and know why they want to ignore him.

    To make neither too much nor too little of Ellul, it is important to note the company he keeps. His was not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. He stands among other minor prophets of our epoch’s technological captivity, who, at least when it comes to what they wrote about technology, are also often discounted: Georg Simmel, Karl Jaspers, Nicolas Berdyaev, Romano Guardini, Gabriel Marcel, Ivan Illich, and Lewis Mumford come to mind. Mary Shelley, Martin Heidegger, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley could perhaps be counted among them too. These are the unwelcome prophets of technological warning, antagonists of the heroes of our era from Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, contradictors of the unquestioned whiggish celebration of every new modern convenience and device, exposers of what Ellul called technology’s “bluff.”

    Ellul was a rare composite, both sociologist and theologian, a reader of both Karl Marx and the Bible. After his conversion to Christianity in 1932, for the rest of his life he held what he learned from reading Marx and what he learned from the Bible in constant creative tension. “I did not see why I should have to give up the things that Marx said about society and explained about economy and injustice in the world,” he said. “I confronted the demands of Marx and the demands of the Bible and put them together. I did not create two domains.” Just how successfully he maintained that tension is debatable; for us the point is that his faith was central to all his work. To understand him, his theological commitments cannot be left out of frame. This is the first reason why someone like Jacques Ellul is still worth reading today: that is precisely the sort of person whose counsel we need.

    looking up at skyscrapers

    Photograph by Jayden stains / Unsplash.

    The Technological Society is a thick, dense tome. Rejected several times before its publication in France in 1954, it appeared in English translation a decade later. On both sides of the Atlantic, the book resonated deeply with both the optimism and the apprehension of what the French call the Trente Glorieuses, that midcentury era of economic growth, scientific achievement, mass culture, and mass convenience. In a time marked by the wonders of space exploration and color television but also by the fears of nuclear destruction and the Cold War, The Technological Society tapped into the oscillating, uncertain feelings of the age.

    Ellul, however, had been concerned about la technique since the 1930s. (He insisted that English editions retain the French word – technique – to avoid confusion, although I’m not certain what is preserved by that restriction besides the joy of speaking French.) By technique, Ellul means to name “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” What Ellul means by technique is different from what we normally mean when we talk about technology. It does in fact mean the totality of designs and devices, that increasing cornucopia of engineered wonder. But, more significantly, it names more broadly a rationality, a manner of thinking that reduces everything to “facts, forces, phenomena, means, and instruments.” Technique “brings efficiency to everything,” ordering into intelligible submission our formerly enchanted natural world and its sometimes irrational inhabitants.

    The late philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann called The Technological Society an obscure book. Indeed, at times it is. Borgmann thought Ellul viewed technology too monolithically, and accused him of technological pessimism. He was half-correct. By the term technique, Ellul does mean to indicate a monolithic force brandishing a powerfully determinative logic all its own, displacing other logics. Technique is a way of thinking not only necessary to the creation of distinct technologies, but which has infected all thinking. It’s similar to what the modernist poet David Jones means by the word “utile,” thinking of things in terms of “functional contrivances,” a way of thinking that (as he wrote at the beginning of his greatest poem, “The Anathemata”) “creeps vestibule,” infiltrating everything, deconstructing our ancient stories, interpreting our symbols, utilizing our play.

    Technique doesn’t merely influence us, it’s something we exist within. It’s an “explanatory event,” Ellul says, just as capitalism was for Marx in the nineteenth century. Some even suggest that the French title, La Technique is an allusion to Le Capital. Just as capitalism assigns labor an abstract value, so technique assigns an abstract value of efficiency to everything. But technique also names an encompassing reality, a “totality,” a “monolithic technical world.”

    There is indeed something primitive, perhaps even superstitious, about Ellul’s technique. “Our time is incommensurable with the rest of history,” Ellul said already in the 1940s. “Our world is dying. Two solutions are possible: either the end of the world or a new civilization is going to be born.” “Technique dominates man and all man’s reactions.” With talk like this, one can see why many later philosophers of technology, who stepped back from such sweeping explanations in favor of narrower empirical examinations, discounted Ellul; he was the sort of person who still believed in prophecy, and who thought it appropriate at times to talk like a prophet, even in a world transformed by technique.

    Accepting that technology is subject to spiritual assessment and even critique is what connects Ellul to the other minor prophets of technological modernity. The God to save us, Mumford writes, “will not descend from the machine: he will rise up again in the human soul.” The arrival of technology always provokes a spiritual crisis; retreating into the empirical is not in fact possible. That’s because the unique angst we’ve long associated with technology is plainly a spiritual kind of suffering. Berdyaev called it a “disincarnation, a cleavage between the flesh and the spirit in the organic bodies of history.” Again, we’re not talking about specific technologies but about technique. As Berdyaev said, it’s something more than the impact of aggregate devices; rather, it names more deeply creation’s rebellion against the Creator.

    This is a spiritual crisis precisely because disavowing creation and the Creator isolates and reduces the human person, causing us to lose sight of our identity as made in the image of God. Ellul says technique “suppresses” both the subject and meaning. By the suppression of meaning, Ellul simply understands that the telos of the mechanism soon becomes all-encompassing, that simply being able to do something becomes the reason for doing it. By the suppression of the subject, he means that within the function of the mechanism (Ellul uses the example of driving a car) the question of who becomes suddenly irrelevant; the person simply becomes a cog in a wheel. This is how, at the level of the individual, the human person is consumed within the determinative power of technique.

    Nothing outside the function of the mechanism, outside the rationality of technique, fundamentally matters anymore. What we think, or believe by faith, is true of the origins of the human person – or the destiny of the human person – no longer matters. That a human being is made in the image of God and capable of knowing God no longer bears any ethical force; that sort of talk is degraded to the level of sentiment and eventually forgotten. And what follows? “The machine demands man assumes its image,” is how Berdyaev puts it. Christian askesis is replaced by algorithms of workplace efficiency. Pilgrimage is replaced by productivity. We become functionally atheist. But that may only mark the beginning, particularly if one listens to the transhumanists; for instance, Donna Haraway’s praise of the “transgression” of the boundary between humans and animals in A Cyborg Manifesto, or Elon Musk’s quip that each of us is in some way “already a cyborg,” or his tweeted pride in human experiments he’s funded, implanting chips in eager test subjects’ brains.

    What then is to be done? Ellul was not a Luddite. He was formed too much by Marx to think that merely destroying technologies would achieve anything, and he was too much a follower of Jesus to believe the matter hopeless. However negative Ellul was, he never suggested that the thing to do was to escape the world of technique. That, he was clear, is impossible; there is, he writes at the end of The Technological Society, “no exit.” One may imitate premodern ways of living, but in the reality of everyday life there is no going back. What then, Ellul asks, must we do for our children? How should we raise them in a world at once technically marvelous and existentially threatening?

    Ellul says we should “prepare them to live in technique and at the same time against technique.” Here Ellul is at his most Christian, for Christian revelation offers a reference point outside the world of technique from which it can be rightly assessed and critiqued. By the light of God’s revelation Christians can say both yes and no to the world of technique. Deeply influenced by Karl Barth, Ellul prefers to talk about “revelation” rather than “Christianity” or “religion” or “church,” for he doesn’t want the Christian response to technique to be reduced to mere idealism, to the notion that all that is needed is that we “regain control over the technical ‘means’ by an additional quantity of soul.” Ellul here judges many Christian approaches to technology superficial. It is not sufficient merely to remember that we are Christians while making use of technology; we must in fact submit the technological to the spiritual. And only divine revelation can equip us to do that.

    But if revelation is necessary to break the power of technique – a breaking that is necessary to preserve our being human – how is Christian revelation encountered? Christian revelation, Ellul says, does three things: it announces a liberator, God in Christ; it offers an assessment of reality in that it names sin; and it helps evaluate means to ends by announcing the kingdom of God. But again, how? Here Ellul talks about ethics and the Christian “style of life.” In The Presence of the Kingdom he writes, “Christians ought to try to create a style of life which does not differentiate them from others, but yet permits them to escape from the stifling pressure of our present form of civilization.”

    If what’s at stake is as existential as Ellul claims, the best hope for redeeming the human lies within the mysteries of our faith, particularly as we encounter those mysteries in worship. For the Christian gospel doesn’t merely announce a liberator and proclaim a kingdom – it invites humans to enter into that kingdom. That is, to borrow Catherine Pickstock’s language, the gospel, much like philosophy, is also consummated liturgically. For it is there, before the word of God and the altar of God, that humans may be given themselves again, in that place where bread is body and wine is blood. The sacraments can give us back what the screen has stolen.

    Jacques Ellul warned us of the dangers we now face. His vision’s time has come. We haven’t been able forget him completely for a reason. Prophets always point to the worship of God, for that is the only thing real enough to make us human again.

    Contributed By Joshua Whitfield Joshua J. Whitfield

    Joshua J. Whitfield is a Catholic priest living in Dallas, Texas. A convert from Anglicanism, he is a married priest and father of five.

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