Confronting the Technological Society

“But as more and more activities and areas of life get absorbed in technique — in recent years perhaps most visibly through digital technologies shaping friendships, learning, buying and selling, travel, music, leisure, and much else — the possibilities of pushing back against it diminish. The lesson here is not that the particular technologies are necessarily harmful and ought to be shunned. Rather, while they aim to make countless activities easier and more efficient — and us happier — they tend to obscure from our vision the real, kaleidoscopic, sometimes maddening but appropriate complexities of these activities. Education, political engagement, friendship, artistic and scholarly excellence, moral and intellectual virtue — these are and remain vexingly difficult, and there are no shortcuts to becoming good at them, even if various tools are helpful along the way. What we need is to learn to appreciate the tensions and difficulties of pursuing these deeply meaningful ends. As Ellul writes in The Political Illusion, “Only tension and conflict form personality, not only on the loftiest, most personal plane, but also on the collective plane.”

An ethics of nonpower — choosing not to exercise mastery at the expense of proper human ends — will involve tensions and conflicts, the maintenance of which is a prerequisite for the pursuit of the best things. The craftsmen of governments demanding separation of powers and a system of checks and balances recognized this principle, ensuring restraint and organized tensions to prevent despotism. Freedom requires tension, and Ellul in his insistence on dialectical thinking is ultimately concerned with preserving human freedom. Whereas technologies grant us greater freedom to master our environment, technique as a whole restrains it and itself becomes the new environment resisting our mastery. An important point Ellul seems to have missed is that for the technician, the craftsman, and the mechanic, mastery over technology requires not confrontation from without but proper care for the thing and submission to its physical demands. Freedom from the tool goes hand in hand with freedom and skill to manipulate it, which often makes older tools that reveal their workings superior to the new ones that conceal them. The master technician may thus be freer than the mere user who has not been disciplined by the making of the tool…

…We ought instead to take Ellul’s book, placed in the context of his larger work, as an appeal to walk a middle path between unrestrained technophilia and reactionary technophobia, a path we see only if we refocus on human ends, which are familial, communal, political, and ecclesial. This requires that we are willing to admit that among our vast array of technical means many fail to serve us well, that progress on this path has often little to do with innovation, and that control over our means is not simply given but something we must struggle for by confronting them with these higher than technical ends.

-Samuel Matlack, “Confronting the Technological Society.” The New Atlantis. Summer/Fall 2014.

Another reminder, along with L.M. Sacasas’ The Convivial Society, to read Ellul’s work.