Gambling with Creation

October 1992By Jeff Dietrich

Jeff Dietrich is a long-time veteran of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker and edits its paper, The Catholic Agitator.

The Technological Bluff.  By Jacques Ellul. Eerdmans. 412 pages. $24.95.



Like all organized gam­bling, it’s a sucker’s game; the deck, if we are to believe Jacques Ellul, is always stacked in favor of the house. In The Technological Bluff, Ellul evokes an image of our world as a giant casino in which bleary-eyed gamblers, enthralled by the wonder of technique and distracted by fantasy, risk all that is vital and human on the chance that the big pay-off will finally solve all our problems.

Outside the casino, the Third World indigent and the First World poor and homeless occasionally stage public pro­tests against their misery. But, for the most part, they clamor for the opportunity to play the game and participate in the distractions.

The attraction of Ellul’s numerous writings on technol­ogy is that they go below the surface of experience. So while John Scully of Apple Com­puters spoke glibly of a tech­nology that promoted revolt in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and other experts ex­pound upon the personal empowerment made possible by the microcomputer and the information explosion, Ellul continues to call technology’s bluff: “Ocean currents remain the same in spite of the storm. There has been tremendous technical change, but no…change in the technical sys­tem…. Even the most dazzling innovations are within the system.”

While political leaders ex­tol Western freedom and technical progress, Ellul asks us to recognize that personal freedom is illusory in a mass society and that, increasingly, all societies dance to the tune of “techniques.” As Europe emerges as the world’s largest trading bloc and the U.S. rushes to create a similar entity with Canada and Mexico, we will no doubt see a reborn Russia and eastern Europe reconstitute themselves accord­ing to the technical demands of a centralized “global market.”

It is indeed the issue of freedom that is of first im­portance to Ellul. Since the 1950s he has predicted that technique would continue its implacable march toward greater conformity, narrowing the realm of authentic free­dom, even as the masses cheer. “True technique will always maintain the illusion of liberty,” he said in The Technological Society.

The essential bluff of technology is that it will en­hance human freedom. The deepest article of modernity’s faith is that technology frees humanity from “natural neces­sity”: disease, discomfort, and harsh labor. But, for Ellul, this liberation only serves to en­slave us more deeply to the demands of “technical necessity.”

What flies in the face of contemporary sensibilities is Ellul’s conviction that technical necessity, not political ideology or philosophical reflection, is the driving force of modern history. Such offbeat thinking is only more deeply under­scored by its passionate rejec­tion.

Rejection, however, has not deterred Ellul from alerting us to a bogus “gospel of technique.” He insists that tech­nique is not merely a neutral tool but rather an entity with its own weight, direction, and logic that circumscribe free­dom. “So long as inventions were on a human scale and could be adjusted to existing techniques and structures,” says Ellul, “there was no great problem. But in recent years the explosion of new tech­niques has totally upset the techno-industrial…scene. We have not as yet mastered the upheaval…. In reality, most of the fragility from which we suffer comes from unlimited technical growth, regarding which there is less and less wisdom.”

Ellul warns of four possi­ble disasters: nuclear war, an exponential increase in unem­ployment, financial collapse of the West due to debt, and a general Third World revolt.

For Ellul, “The third world can never catch up with the developed world…. In reality it is the technical system itself that produces the proletariani­zation as well as the poverty of the third world.” The real solu­tions to the problems of the Third World must come from a spiritual sense of solidarity and a sense of economy. But he points out: “The West implicit­ly refuses to give up its own extravagance and expansion of high tech. It tries instead to soothe its conscience by argu­ing that it is precisely these factors that will enable the third world to get out of its impasse. This is a technological bluff!”

Well before the Persian Gulf conflict, Ellul was stating that we were already engaged in a war with the Third World and that the mobilizing ideolo­gy of those nations was not Marxism but Islam. Lest any should take comfort in the creation of George Bush’s “Pax Americana,” Ellul raises the specter of the West finding itself “globally in the same situation as the white minority in South Africa.”

For Ellul, however, the greatest technological bluff is not the “bluff of progress” or the “bluff of utopia”; it is the “bluff of culture.” For more than a century, it has been the hope of the West to create a “technological culture” that can somehow reconcile technology and humanity. But the imbal­ance and dissonance — to say nothing of world wars, death camps, and environmental pollution — caused or enabled over the last 150 years by technology have left the world fractured and without spiritual direction or collective purpose. The struggle to find a way out of this situation has been abandoned. Now it seems that there will be a gradual adapta­tion of humanity to technique: “It is now possible to invent the kind of people we want…. The invention of humanity as though it were a technical and scientific activity will have destructive effects on humani­ty, or may well create mon­sters.” Thus we read in Rolling Stone a glowing article on a new “artificial life program” that is completely devoid of any critical reflection on the ironic implications that it is being developed in the very same New Mexico laboratory that gave us the nuclear bomb.

For most people, Ellul’s description of contemporary reality is too bleak, too hopeless. But Ellul wants to shock us out of our addiction to compulsive gambling. The only chance we have to call tech­nology’s bluff is to maintain a consistently critical attitude. Says Ellul, “This is the only freedom that we still have, if we have the courage to still grasp it.”



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