How Tech Despair Can Set You Free

Jacques Ellul on escaping the totalizing grip of “technique”
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One way to look at the twentieth century is to say that nations may rise and fall but technical progress remains forever. Its sun rises on the evil and on the good, and its rain falls on the just and on the unjust. Its sun can be brighter than a thousand suns, scorching our enemies, but, with some time and ingenuity, it can also power air conditioners and 5G. One needs to look on the bright side, living by faith and not by sight.

The century’s inquiring minds wished to know whether this faith in progress is meaningfully different from blindness. Ranking high among those minds was the French historian, sociologist, and lay theologian Jacques Ellul, and his answer was simple: No.

In America, Ellul became best known for his book The Technological Society. The book’s signature term was “technique,” an idea he developed throughout his vast body of writing. Technique is the social structure on which modern life is built. It is the consciousness that has come to govern all human affairs, suppressing questions of ultimate human purposes and meaning. Our society no longer asks why we should do anything. All that matters anymore, Ellul argued, is how to do it — to which the canned answer is always: More efficiently! Much as a modern machine can be said to run on its own, so does the technological society. Human control of it is an illusion, which means we are on a path to self-destruction — not because the social machine will necessarily kill us (although it might), but because we are fast becoming soulless creatures.

While tech pessimists celebrated Ellul’s book as an urgent warning of impending doom, tech optimists dismissed it as alarmist exaggeration. Beneath this mixed reception lies a more difficult truth, because what on the surface looks like plain old doomsaying is in fact a highly unusual project.

The time of the book’s publication — 1954 in French, and ten years later in English translation — does some explaining of the darkness of its vision. Totalitarianism, arising from both the left and the right, had proved to be the century’s greatest political threat, and so the impulse to see social structures as mechanistic and dehumanizing seemed natural. Nuclear annihilation was a live option. And the gridlock of the world’s two great superpowers invited many thinkers to ponder whether the two were in fact not radically opposed alternatives but parallel tracks headed to different train wrecks. The Soviets were enacting Orwell’s 1984, while the “free world” was on track to Huxley’s Brave New World. Pessimism was a sensible position.

Cultivator, an etching by Victoria Goro-Rapoport (2019)
Used with permission of the artist

But looking back on that era, optimists might think they are justified in claiming that the doomsaying was overblown. The Soviet Union fell without the bomb getting dropped. No third world war has been looming, and while the world remains a dangerous place, the good guys are still winning, thanks in large part to massively efficient economies and technological supremacy. China may have more steel, but we have more guns. (Let’s not talk about the germs.) And the digital revolution, despite collateral damage, has brought a bounty of benefits we largely take for granted. So to the optimist, Ellul’s talk some seventy years ago about how we were facing a choice between suicide and freedom sounds antiquated. He was a man of his time.

So why bother? What use can we make of Ellul’s vision? Because even if we believe that our world’s most dehumanizing technological projects — from Beijing to Silicon Valley — demand a fierce defense of human dignity, why look to Ellul when we have our own productive cottage industry of critics, ethicists, theorists, and prophets? Why put up with Ellul’s abstract style and the bizarre structure of his gigantic output — the fact that one may find in any given text only half of what he actually thought about the subject, thanks to what he called his dialectical approach?

The reason to bother with Jacques Ellul — and why despite my frustrations I continue to read him — is that he shows an alternative and oddly hopeful path for approaching social critique. We may put the standard approach this way (risking to state the obvious): If we start with the right analysis of where we are now, and take the right steps of reform, then we will someday arrive at a better future. However steep the path, greener pastures are waiting. This thinking so permeates run-of-the-mill social critique that it’s hard to even notice it.

But Ellul rejects it. He refuses to offer a prescription for social reform. He meticulously and often tediously presents a problem — but not a solution of the kind we expect. This is because he believed that the usual approach offers a false picture of human agency. It exaggerates our ability to plan and execute change to our fundamental social structures. It is utopian. To arrive at an honest view of human freedom, responsibility, and action, he believed, we must confront the fact that we are constrained in more ways than we like to think. Technique, says Ellul, is society’s tightest constraint on us, and we must feel the totality of its grip in order to find the freedom to act.

‘Efficiency Gone Mad’

So what is technique? To help us visualize it, we can use a present-day example we all remember. In the pandemic spring and summer of 2020, during nationwide lockdown, we read headlines about our food supply chains failing. Bizarrely, at the same time that we found shelves in grocery stores empty, we heard that some farmers were destroying crops, euthanizing chickens, pigs, and cows, and dumping milk. What on earth went wrong? The food journalist Michael Pollan, writing in the New York Review of Books, explains what he calls “economic efficiency gone mad.”

Today the US actually has two separate food chains, each supplying roughly half of the market. The retail food chain links one set of farmers to grocery stores, and a second chain links a different set of farmers to institutional purchasers of food, such as restaurants, schools, and corporate offices. With the shutting down of much of the economy, as Americans stay home, this second food chain has essentially collapsed. But because of the way the industry has developed over the past several decades, it’s virtually impossible to reroute food normally sold in bulk to institutions to the retail outlets now clamoring for it.

Here is an example Pollan offers:

One chicken farmer … who sells millions of eggs into the liquified egg market, destined for omelets in school cafeterias, lacks the grading equipment and packaging (not to mention the contacts or contracts) to sell his eggs in the retail marketplace. That chicken farmer had no choice but to euthanize thousands of hens at a time when eggs are in short supply in many supermarkets.

This is technique, “efficiency gone mad,” and we can understand Ellul’s writing on this subject as an effort to see the same underlying logic that produced our food system also producing analogous systems in areas as seemingly disparate as education, industry, and art. Society writ large runs on a logic that under normal circumstances indeed works smoothly, but the point is that we don’t run it — it runs us.

Totalitarian Technique

Where Ellul gets difficult to swallow is in his totalizing claim that “nothing at all escapes technique today.” Our society is “radically totalitarian.” Thinking about ends rather than means has become impossible. Now, taken literally, this would seem to be false just as much then as it is now; Michael Pollan is writing about precisely this, and indeed offers examples of small-scale farmers successfully escaping the efficiency madness of our food system when it failed last year.

Is Ellul exaggerating for rhetorical effect to shake us out of our complacency? I think not; he is neither a polemicist nor a poet.

Is he simply a pessimist? As we will see, the answer is complicated. He did grant once in an interview that he is “by nature rather pessimistic,” but he has typically denied the charge, insisting elsewhere that “I am neither by nature, nor doctrinally, a pessimist,” and that readers who think he is a pessimist are perhaps unaware of their own philosophical outlook coloring their judgment. For example, they may believe that “progress is always positive.” (More on pessimism shortly.)

Is Ellul a determinist or fatalist, believing that dehumanizing social systems are the inevitable outcome of rationalist thinking, or even of history? He rejects this charge as well, explaining that his writing on technique is a sociological endeavor offering a big picture of a large phenomenon. He describes a reality that is quite independent of individual action. We may think of it this way: It’s as if our society is playing a game called Technique, and he is describing its rules. Whether or not we individually all play by the rules is another matter, although we often do even when we think we are not.

In this light, the “totalitarianism” of technique might best be understood as the game played to perfection. Ellul wants to say that our society keeps getting better at the game; if we keep playing as we do, we will likely win — meaning we will all lose our humanity. “I have tried,” he writes, “to describe the technical phenomenon as it exists at present and to indicate its probable evolution. Fatalism is not involved; it is rather a question of probability, and I have indicated what I think to be its most likely development.”

And yet, when we read Ellul on technique, we can never quite shake the feeling that what he says is a probability is a virtual certainty. It can be hard to take his self-defense and attempts at qualification seriously. But the payoffs of his totalizing picture of technique remain significant.

The first payoff is pragmatic. We see patterns best when we paint them in the broadest strokes possible. They help us to see that our food system’s failure during a pandemic, our opioid crisis, our rapid loss of animal species, and our “warehousing” of the elderly may all be symptoms of the same long-term disease, manifesting deep-seated cultural habits we have too long ignored.

The second payoff is prophetic, in the tradition of the biblical prophets Ellul knew well. We will ultimately get what our hearts desire. If what we get is bad (and it looks like it’s going to be), that’s because we don’t desire what is good. We have been worshipping an idol. And because in the face of large-scale problems we are by nature both complacent and complicit, we may fail to see the error of our ways until it’s too late.

But the third payoff of Ellul’s totalitarian critique is the most intriguing. We might call it an existentialist therapy — a journey of the soul toward anxiety in order to find rest beyond it, and motivation to act. Reading Ellul, if one can temper one’s frustrations with him, has the initial effect of anxiety verging on despair. This is where his work is most fruitful.

Rooting Out Despair

One of Ellul’s major intellectual influences was Kierkegaard, who writes that all of us suffer from a sickness of the soul:

Just as a physician might say that there very likely is not one single living human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows mankind might say that there is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety….

Kierkegaard argues that these hints of anxiety we each feel — and that we each try either to escape from or to put up with — are really symptoms of a universal “sickness unto death” that is largely hidden from view. Christianity, he says, has “discovered a miserable condition that man as such does not know exists.” But Christianity not only finds this condition, it also describes its relief. The “state of the self when despair is completely rooted out,” Kierkegaard writes, is when “the self rests transparently in the power that established it.” There is no relief from our despair until we get to the bottom of it, recognize its all-pervasiveness, confront it, and find at the other end of that journey a place of divine rest that is also the beginning of freedom.

Ellul might best be understood as engaging in a similar process. The despair we may feel when our technological system dehumanizes us — as in the commodification of life in fetal-tissue research, or the death wish at the heart of transhumanists’ dreams, or the way that much of public-health governance has become mass manipulation, or even just the vague sense that something stinks beneath the surface of most public “ethical” thinking on science and tech — all these are symptoms that something at the very core is rotten. Fully exposing that rotten core is Ellul’s project in his writings on technique. To what end? To produce the despair he thinks we must face in order for hope to have any real weight.

Hopeful Living

Hope is the key term, and Ellul is adamant that it is not optimism. “The best formula,” he writes, is “one of pessimism in hope.” But we don’t find his account of hope in his writing on technique. To the perpetual frustration of many of his readers, his books often fall into two sharply separate domains: sociology on the one side, theology on the other. If we encounter only the sociology side, we may easily conclude that he is evidently a pessimist, despite his insistence that he’s not. We have to turn instead to a theological book like Hope in Time of Abandonment.

We can see in that book Ellul’s existentialist leanings, for example when he ranks living over exposition of ideas. This is why hope in the face of uncontrollable technique is hard to wrap one’s mind around. “You cannot talk about hope,” he writes. “The question is how to live it.” The reason you cannot talk about hope — or, rather, cannot describe the action it takes — is this: Hope is not a program for reform, a solution to implement, or a prescription to follow. To borrow from the farmer and writer Wendell Berry, hope means “work for the present,” whereas optimism means “making up a version of the future.”

It is at this point that one itches to see, if not solutions, then images of what hopeful living might be like. Berry talks of the need for each of us to create a “lexicon of good examples” — examples that show “a better way” of food production, of life together, of preserving the Earth. Unfortunately, it was Ellul’s shortcoming as a writer that he seemed unable to breathe life into his ideas, in addition to worrying constantly that readers might turn examples into programs.

What we do know is that Ellul’s own life bears ample testimony to hope. Here is one episode of many. Having lost his university position during the Nazi occupation of France, Ellul and his wife Yvette settled on a farm in a small village near the demarcation line, opening their door to Resistance fighters and Russians escaping German prison camps. With the help of neighbors — since Ellul knew nothing about farming — he grew potatoes and corn, with his wife raising chickens. As he once told the story, “I spent most of my time helping people get across into the free French zone. I was in cahoots with an organization that dealt in forged papers. So I was able to provide a whole series of people with forged identity cards.”

This is not an optimistic program for how to defeat the Nazi regime. It is one man’s faithful, hopeful, and loving act of defiance against tyranny, bringing to mind the final words of Middlemarch: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Did we still need an Allied invasion of Normandy to finally solve that problem? Probably yes, and we may owe our lives to those who in their historic acts drew up the plans and saw them through. For most of us, hope may look smaller but is no less virtuous. It is providing safe passage for others during war, or having a baby during a pandemic, and it is the daily labor — painfully inefficient — of cultivating plots of mind and land the tyrants shall not claim.

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