What is The Technological System?

Jaques Ellul introduces The Technological System in 1980 on top the foundation in The Technological Society. In his attempt to understand and interpret the fundamental forces of the modern age, he begins where Raymond Aron left off, at the notion of an Industrial Society which is characterized by multiplying machines that cause a similar social model anywhere in the world.

What are the characteristics that make the technological society the successor to the industrial society?

  1. The power of machines designed for a specialized, single purpose has grown incredibly.
  2. This leads to complexification as more and more single-purpose machines are linked in networks inside the factory.
  3. Because of the specialization, a continuous flow of raw material moves linearly along the production line from one to the next. In contrast with the 19th century industrial workshops, which contained independently operating pods of machines.
  4. Finally, the information flows between these machines needs to be automated with computers due to complexity.

The most interesting response to "why should we care" is "but how does it relate to power?"

...technology is power, made up of instruments of power, hence producing phenomena and structures of power, i.e., of domination

The growth of the productive technologies in the industrial society were followed by the the growth the of the services technologies in the technological society. The services technologies are the technologies of "organization, administration, leisure, etc"

We commonly hear about the "consumer society." It's relationship to the technological society:

Technological activity is "by nature" spectacular (excluding all internal reality): Technological activity is what waters down all serious things, since no action can be performed any longer unless by way of technologies. And the society of spectacle seems to be the ideal framework, the most favorable environment for developing technology because it is the milieu that is least disturbed by any untimely interference from autonomous man.

So, the technological society takes the form of an endless circle of production, and consumption, and more production and more consumption, deeper and deeper. What does it mean for power, and for the human?

...with everything thus being produced and consumed, the system presupposes a more and more thorough integration of each element, including man, as an object. Man can no longer be a subject. For, the system implies that, at least in regard to itself, man must always be treated as an object.

...because the person themselves becomes integrated as a specialized component in the technological process, as a technician, consumer, efficiency expert, etc. At very deep levels, all objects (people now included) only get their meanings from their places inside the technological system.

Nothing can have an intrinsic sense; it is given meaning only by technological application. Nothing can lay claim to action; it is acted upon by technological process. Nothing can regard itself as autonomous; it is the technological system that is autonomous.

A criticism that Ellul takes the time to address is whether this technological society is just a society controlled by technocrats rather than a pervasive system. Is there a class stratification, where a particular class operates the technology over the rest of the population, or do all people participate in driving the system forward?

What does this mean for the changing nature of reality?

... when watching TV, we are incapable of knowing that this miracle is a long social process of production, which leads to our consumption of images. For technology wipes away the very principle (social) reality. Everything that is social has moved to an abstract level, with the strange phenomenon of an acute awareness of nonreality (for example, the passion for politics) and an unawareness of reality (for example, technology). Now this shift of relationship is actually due to technology. It is technology that presents the nonreality which is mistaken for reality (consumer goods or political activity). Technology does this by its own process of distribution, the image. And it is technology that "hides itself"... behind that luminous play of appearances.

Again: what does it mean for power, and for the human person? Ellul returns to the fact there is always something irrational, unpredictable, human within even the most beurocratic and technological systems. Therefore, the technological system is not the society itself, but there is a human society into which a technological system has been installed. Between the human society and the technological system there is disarray, conflict, and violence.

And just as the machine causes disturbances and disorders in the natural environment and imperils the ecology, so too the technological system causes disorders, irrationalities, incoherences in the society and challenges the sociological environment.

Since the mega-machine-as-the-society-itself is not the case; and the technological system is being imposed by people; why is it being imposed? Ellul cites the Kleist essay “On the Marionette Theater” in a way that instantly reminds us of the Transhuman movement: people seeking to give up their control to receive infinite consciousness. The puppetized person allegedly acquires the grace of God through unconsciousness and completed subjugation to the machine system.

This leaves us at the same, old ideas of Utopia:

I believe that this trend is actually a “new ruse of the devil" to trick us into entering the megamachine. We must remember that all utopians of the past, without a single exception, have presented society exactly as a megamachine. Each utopia has been an exact repetition of an ideal organization, a perfect conjunction between the various parts of the social body. Utopia presents a flawless totalitarian society, which finally assures man of equality, the future, and so on.

In summary

The Ellul analysis reveals the essence of the current age as a misguided attempt to achieve grace through mass unconsciousness by way of a technological system installed over a human society.

All quotes are taken from:

  • Ellul, Jacques. The Technological System. New York: Continuum, 1980.
Further Reading
Show Comments