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, its a suckers 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 Elluls 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 technologys 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 worlds 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 modernitys 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 Elluls 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 Bushs 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, Elluls 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 technologys 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.