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The technological system – Jacques Ellul

This is a philosophical book about the technology, more specifically about the relationship between the technology and man (and society). The main idea is that technological artifacts are not independent objects, but rather they form a technological system in which every object is interconnected to the other and cannot be considered independent since its function and existence is determined by the ones of all other technological objects. This technological system has become totalizing in respect to mankind: is everywhere and filling every gap. Moreover, technology is (in its essence) a mediator that isolates man from nature and hence adding this to the previous statements we can conclude that the technological system alienates men and shapes society.

This is a deep and strong thought, and many people would not agree, but I find it is absolutely true: just observing reality I can find only evidences. Nonetheless, the author goes further, saying that the way technology shapes society is total and complete: humans have not anymore any freedom or sovereignty. I can’t agree with this statement: I find that the space of choice and action of human beings is still large, even if we are inside a “technological system” that bounds and controls many aspects of our life and relationships. But this is a very important point of Ellul’s thought: he would say that I am completely wrong if I do not accept his idea of “loss of freedom”.

The author then asserts that the computer is the machine that permits the organization of all other technologies, and hence it is the ultimate responsible of technology take over. He warns about the possible usage of personal data against privacy and in order to control population in a dictatorship-like way. He also refuses the possibility of a computer usage in a democratizing process, and in this I think here he is wrong: lets’ just watch at the usage of social Internet in political facts like the 2009 green movement in Iran, the 2011 riots in Egypt and Tunisia, the 2011 “Democracia real” protests in Spain, and the 2007-to now “Movimento 5 Stelle” in Italy.

Ellul thinks that technology has the feature of being autonomous and not depending from other factors:  this does not mean that technology cannot be affected by them (e.g. by politics or economics) but that it is anyway stronger than any external influence and its trajectory is however self-determined. Technology is also self-augmenting and it uses humans and R&D to achieve its augmentation. In such a situation of a Technological System ruling the society, Ellul thinks that one important effect is the technicization of state from the political point of view: the problems of the society are not political problems anymore, but technological problems whose solution is thought to be (by people) only technological. This is a great observation that is evident every year more. This maybe related to the fact the as technology solves a group of problem, at the same time it generates new problems that have to be solved…and so on forever. Simple examples of that can be the better food availability, the medical advances, that created the problem of overpopulation. Or the use of machines to improve production that created the problem of pollution.

A brilliant intuition by Ellul is the non-neutrality of science: science is rather ambivalent and can be used both for good or evil purposes. Technology is the mediator that makes science a tool for governments. Since instead science is thought by society to be neutral, society doesn’t impose any moral or ethic constraints to it. And since science is the premise to technology, if the premise is free from moral judgement, also technology should be. Hence this makes us amoral. From this it follows that anything scientific is legitimate, and in consequence, anything technological. Lately technology itself has become a judge of morality: a moral proposition is considered valid only if it is consistent with the technological system. As much as in the past society was god-central, in our days it is technology-central.

Along with this central topics, some side discussions are presented in the book, about society aspects, scientific methods, and some critics to previous studies on technology. I am not going to resume them here since it would take too much space and time, but they are indeed interesting to follow, even if also in them I find some elements that are just wrong. For instance Ellul diminish the role and power of capital: in his view jobs are more exhausting and speedy because of technology not because of capital. He ignores the menacing power that capital has to fly away were jobs are cheaper and labor rights are lesser: this is oppressing jobs much more than technology. Another example is when he states that for people status is more important than property, but this is wrong: money and property are still of main importance for people, and status derives from them!

This book is important: it uses a different perspective than almost every other book on innovation, considering technology as a whole, and more, as a system. It is also striking that the author discovered more than 30 years ago some aspects that are becoming clear only now. For example he already understood the predominance of technology in human relationships: in the period of broadcast radio and television, the use of an impersonal phone was not enough to forecast that predominance, yet now we use personal phones (mobiles), personal emails, social networks, continuously and in every moment/place/situation. Nonetheless, I disagree with some of Ellul’s ideas, but I still find that this book is precious.


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