How Tech Despair Can Set You Free

Essay by Samuel Matlack: “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….

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?…(More)”.