The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul
A Book Review by Adam Zmarzlinski
To read Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society is to begin a self-reflective journey through one’s own day-to-day interactions with technology. Part-history and part-political sociology, the text is a detailed analysis of everyday activities—both individual and societal such as cleaning or economies—and their historical journey from basic human actions to efficient, technologically-driven, and system-controlled processes.
Ellul takes the reader on a prophetic ride into the future from a seat set firmly in a confusingly contradictory post-World War II world of anxiety and optimism. Administration, organization, and bureaucracy are the main tour guides through, what I can only call, efficiency theme park. Via the prism of the past, mainly the operational efficiency of the brutality of the Holocaust, Ellul looks at modern institutions such as education, entertainment, and information technology, to name a few, and does so by scrutinizing, in detail, the three major forms of technique: that of the economy, state, and humanity, which he defines as hopeful. The result is a profound evaluation of the human need for order and the dangers that arise from a dependence on that order to maximize efficiency and, in some cases, profits.
Where George Orwell addressed state control over the individual in his novel 1984, Aldous Huxley scientific control in The Brave New World and Anthony Burgess social manipulation in A Clockwork Orange, Ellul addresses all of those in a well-researched, none-fiction text that can only be called one of the most important, and most overlooked, books of the past century. The problems of automation addressed in those novels is described in pain striking detail, especially when it comes to warfare and the use of military progress as a measuring stick to civilizational and cultural progress.
While technology and its role in society is part of the narrative, methodology is the main focus with technology, machinery, and all the ideological, economic and political systems as parts of an ideal that humanity is striving towards. Surprisingly, according to Ellul, the ideal is maximum efficiency and elimination of the inborn human quality that causes distraction—and progress—curiosity. It would seem that the modern entertainment and distraction giants—social media, television and video games—have perfected what Ellul predicted to be the case: maximum efficiency via entertaining distraction where malleable wisdom is replaced by mechanical and rigid knowledge. Rationality and artificiality overtake human essence creating the perfect drone for methodological efficacy.
However, for all its genius and thought-provoking insight, The Technological Society lacks that literary spark that keeps a reader engaged. Dry, dull, and jargon-filled sections litter numerous parts of the book, and make extended sit-downs with the text feel more like a doctor’s appointments—one or two minutes of excitement after an hour long wait in the lobby. It is not a book that lends itself to be understood by or fed to the masses (a great shame) but instead to be slowly analyzed and digested over a ‘bit of pipe tobacco’ or a ‘fine brandy’ by academics and intellectuals.
The best way to describe Ellul’s work is to let the author speak for himself, “The result is the ‘suggestion box’ by means of which workers may indicate their ideas and plans for improvement.” While the quote relates to the characterization of technique, I think it sums up the book fairly well: a great tool for change that is underutilized because of its almost absurd dependence on the courage of Men who act for improvement and not those who only talk about it during their efficiently arranged lunch breaks.
Featured Image Credits: via Wikimedia Commons
Cite this article as: Adam Zmarzlinski, “The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul” in Open Culture, 26/09/2017, https://oc.hypotheses.org/545
 Jacques Ellul. The Technological Society. New York: Vintage Books, 1964, pp. 86.