As with the last book reviewed, this post is about the book half-read.
In The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul meticulously goes through the effects of “technique” on society.
He is very quick to point out that “technique” is not machinery or anything we would call technology. Instead, it is almost an entity, standing outside of human relations and human control. It is the sum of all of the “most efficient” means that society is determined by: policing, propaganda, workplaces, schooling, etc.
The techniques which result from applied science date from the eighteenth century and characterize our own civilization. The new factor is that the multiplicity of these techniques has caused them literally to change their character. Certainly, they derive from old principles and appear to be the fruit of normal and logical evolution. However, they no longer represent the same phenomenon. In fact, technique has taken substance, has become a reality in itself. It is no longer a means and an intermediary. It is an object in itself, an independent reality with which we must reckon.
I am going to quote also here a passage where Ellul discusses tools and skills:
Man tended to exploit to the limit such means as he possessed, and took care not to replace them or create other means as long as the old ones were effective… This was also true industrially. Society was not oriented toward the creation of a new instrument in response to a new need. The emphasis was rather on the application of the old means, which were constantly extended, refined, and perfected.
The deficiency of the tool was to be compensated for by the skill of the worker. Professional know-how, the expert eye were what counted: man’s talents could make his crude tools yield the maximum efficiency. This was a kind of technique, but it had none of the characteristics of instrumental technique. Everything varied from man to man according to his gifts, whereas technique in the modern sense seeks to eliminate such variability. It is understandable that technique in itself played a very feeble role. Everything was done by men who employed the most rudimentary means. The search for the “finished,” for perfection in use, for ingenuity of application, took the place of a search for new tools which would have permitted men to simplify their work, but also would have involved giving up the pursuit of real skill.
…When there is an abundance of instruments that answer all needs, it is impossible for one man to have perfect knowledge of each or the skill to use each. This knowledge would be useless in any case; the perfection of the instrument is what is required, and not the perfection of the human being… Human skill, having attained a certain degree of perfection in practice, necessarily entails improvement of the tool itself… But traditionally the accent was on the human being who used the tool and not on the tool he used.
Overall, this is a dense, yet highly illuminating book. Great for anyone who wants to learn in depth about society. It can take very pessimistic tones at times, yet never stoops so low as to make crude anti-modern remarks. The author seems determined to pursue his analysis of the situation as he finds it, without resorting to exhortation or polemic.
And all of this was written more than fifty years ago!