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technique

For a more fundamental view on technology and its discontents, what better source to turn to than French sociologist Jacques Ellul's classic work 'The Technological Society', which in the 1950s laid out what he termed "the stake of the century" with uncanny prescience.

The book's French title is 'La technique', translated into English after Aldous Huxley introduced it to the USA. But the English title is a bit confusing, as one of Ellul's central ideas is the distinction he makes between technology and technique. Technology denotes tools and machines, whereas technique encompasses the much larger sphere of methods and systems guiding the use of technology - what we today would call technocracy.

For instance, one of the great technologies that defined progress in the nineteenth century, the train, should be understood as embedded in a web of technique, including engineering, industry, economics, administration, propaganda, etc. The quintessential technique is not the train but the timetable.

Ellul defines technique like this:

The term technique, as I use it, does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end. In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.

A more abstract definition would be that technique converts the qualitative into the quantitative - the archetypical example being the clock, which converts fluid, contextual time into mechanical clock time. Similarly, the map converts subjective, mythical space into objective distance, which can then be efficiently travelled by train or car. (By contrast, compare the ancient definition of an acre, measured as the amount of land a man with a yoke of oxen could plough in one day - in other words, a contextual definition expressing space in terms of time, as well as taking into account fuzzy factors like the lie of the land and the skill of the man.)

Thus 'The Technological Society' is really about man's modern, rational way of thinking and organizing his existence, as opposed to earlier mythical or magical societies, which certainly used technology but not yet in any concerted, methodical way. A medieval craftsman working with a hammer, for example, was using technology, but he was not enmeshed in technique as long as his craft, the tool's use, remained a 'holistic', unoptimized activity. As Ellul writes, "traditionally the accent was on the human being who used the tool and not on the tool he used."

All this started to change, however, from the fifteenth century onwards, in a slowly building explosion of discoveries and inventions culminating in the industrial revolution, which Ellul itself considers part of the much larger technical revolution. During this time a variety of separate innovations in different areas - technological, administrative, economical - started to combine to transform society as a whole.

...in our civilization technique is in no way limited. It has been extended to all spheres and encompasses every activity, including human activities. It has led to a multiplication of means without limit. It has perfected indefinitely the instruments available to man, and put at his disposal an almost limitless variety of intermediaries and auxiliaries. Technique has been extended geographically so that it covers the whole earth. It is evolving with a rapidity disconcerting not only to the man in the street but to the technician himself.

Which leads to Ellul's second major thesis, that technique has become a force independent of man, obeying its own logic of efficiency, systemization and dehumanization, to which people can still contribute but which they can't stop or alter. If technique is the most efficient solution to any problem, once it's there it's virtually impossible to ignore or 'undo'.

Technical progress today is no longer conditioned by anything other than its own calculus of efficiency. The search is no longer personal, experimental, workmanlike; it is abstract, mathematical, and industrial. This does not mean that the individual no longer participates. On the contrary, progress is made only after innumerable individual experiments. But the individual participates only to the degree that he is subordinate to the search for efficiency, to the degree that he resists all the currents today considered secondary, such as aesthetics, ethics, fantasy. Insofar as the individual represents this abstract tendency, he is permitted to participate in technical creation, which is increasingly independent of him and increasingly linked to its own mathematical law.

Ellul's frame of reference is mechanical, a world of factories, mass production, mass consumption, mass man. A world like Charlie Chaplin's 'Modern Times' (1936), where a bewildered worker is all but crushed in the cogs of the machine - creating an emblematic image of how the accent has shifted to the tool, to which the human being must adapt himself.

But the film that best illustrates society's transformation through technique must be Jacques Tati's 'Jour de Fête' (1949). Tati's later films all explored the brave new world where man got lost in houses ('Mon Oncle') and cities ('Play Time') rendered incomprehensible by technique, but 'Jour de Fête' showed the world that existed before that, a non-technical society.

Set in a sleepy French village, the film shows a very early stage of technical transformation, which starts when the local mailman is carried away by a film (!) about the modernization of the American postal system, featuring some spectacular stunt work by a mail force that's technical to the hilt. The mailman's subsequent attempts to copy these newfangled methods of course create havoc in the village, disrupting its time-hallowed ways. But while this particular attempt at modernization fails hopelessly, the film is also suffused with nostalgia for a way of life that was doomed to disappear.

Ellul thought so too, and history has largely proven him right - today's globalization processes can indeed be read as the accelerated distribution of technique to all remaining non-technical corners of the world.

Sixty years after it first appeared, Ellul's analysis is on such a fundamental level that it sounds almost naive - of course we do things systematically, how else? Of course we're free, what abstract slavery are you talking about? Which is another way of saying that technique is now so omnipresent as to be invisible, ambient, completely internalized.

With the advent of the information age we have likely entered a new phase of the technical society, characterized by personalization and 'soft' techniques of tracking, surveilling, nudging, and symbolized by the quantified self. Here technique seems to be reaching its logical end point, invading the last bastion of quality, of inefficient thoughts and feelings, and turning them into functional data.

It comes eerily close to how Ellul concluded his own look into a dystopian future:

It will not seem insane, for everything will be ordered, and the stains of human passion will be lost amid the chromium gleam. We shall have nothing more to lose, and nothing to win. Our deepest instincts and our most secret passions will be analyzed, published, and exploited. We shall be rewarded with everything our hearts ever desired. And the supreme luxury of the society of technical necessity will be to grant the bonus of useless revolt and of an acquiescent smile.

But... Ellul's unfliching analysis, which has been criticized for being too pessimistic, also leads to a question of determinism. If technique really is the independent force penetrating ever further into people's lives, is there anything we can do to hold onto our independence, our humanism?

Ellul addressed this question in a later foreword to 'The Technological Society', and his answer makes for a slightly more uplifting conclusion:

We must not think of the problem in terms of a choice between being determined and being free. We must look at it dialectically, and say that man is indeed determined, but that it is open to him to overcome necessity, and that this act is freedom. Freedom is not static but dynamic; not a vested interest, but a prize continually to be won. The moment man stops and resigns himself, he becomes subject to determinism. He is most enslaved when he thinks he is comfortably settled in freedom.

See also this rare interview from 1996 made for Dutch television, 'The Betrayal by Technology' (with English subtitles), where Ellul discusses, among other things, the conflict between technology and freedom.

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