the crab & musket

It turns everything it touches into a machine

September 17, 2019

Alarms cry out, overloaded gauges spin, the enormous engine reaches critical temperature and explodes. Its operators are doused in scalding steam, and they stagger away, desperately trying to free themselves from clothes melting to their bodies.

“Moloch!” cries Freder, the film’s young protagonist, as he witnesses the devastating industrial accident. Fainting, he imagines the engine transformed into a huge demonic face. Platoons of workers march into its maw and are dashed on pounding wheels and pistons within.

It is an allegory for the sacrifice of humanity to technology, a parable about the horror of mechanisation. But there is a subtler horror depicted in that famous scene.

In the moments before the accident, Freder observes the enormous machine in flawless operation, powering the city he lives in. Ranks of underclass machine operators move in a precisely choreographed dance, pulling levers and turning wheels with a rhythmic tempo. They are almost indistinguishable from the rotating arms of the engine itself, seeming to actually be part of the mechanism. They remain human only biologically: in all other aspects, they have become machines. Only after being accidentally maimed by the explosion do they regain their humanity.

By depicting humans whose existence is totally dictated by the requirements and tempo of the machine, Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis anticipates Jacques Ellul’s 1954 polemic masterpiece La Technique. The book explores Ellul’s concept of technique, which he argues is a vital, yet almost completely overlooked, force in human history and our collective future.

In this article, I’ll attempt to lay out what I see as the most important parts of Ellul’s thesis. I hope to make his insights more accessible and widely known among my colleagues and friends.

All quotes in this article are taken from John Wilkinson’s 1964 translation. In sympathy with Ellul’s maxim that “books are made to be read and not consulted,” I have cited section names instead of page numbers.

The nature of technique

Technique, as Ellul puts it, is the suite of means by which we rationally maximise efficiency in all areas of human activity. Technique is not just machinery; technique demands that humans become machines in order to be efficient.

The machine is deeply symptomatic: it represents the ideal toward which technique strives. The machine is solely, exclusively, technique; it is pure technique, one might say. For, wherever a technical factor exists, it results, almost inevitably, in mechanization: technique transforms everything it touches into a machine.

— The Technological Society (1954), “Situating the technical phenomenon”

In a technical world—most inconspicuously symbolised by the clock—humans are not the masters of their own destiny, nor even of their daily schedules. They are subordinated to systems and mechanisms entirely beyond their control.

The human being is no longer in any sense the agent of choice […] He is a device for recording effects and results obtained by various techniques. He does not make a choice of complex and, in some way, human motives.

— “Automatism of technical choice”

Ellul’s techniques together resemble an ideology more than an artefact—though calling technique an ideology would imply that humans consciously thought it up and promoted it. But in fact, technique is an almost-invisible force in society (technology being one of its visible avatars), obeying its own internal logic.

By ignoring factors that are not technical, by considering only quantifiable data related to yield or efficiency, technique creates a new moral universe, separate from both traditional and modern humanistic ethics. Technique swiftly engenders itself, as the introduction of efficiency in one place demands efficiency in adjacent areas, and the technical moral universe expands. Eventually it engulfs the natural moral and physical universes:

Just as hydroelectric installations take waterfalls and lead them into conduits, so the technical milieu absorbs the natural. We are rapidly approaching the time when there will be no longer any natural environment at all. When we succeed in producing artificial aurorae boreales, night will disappear and perpetual day will reign over the planet.

— “The new characteristics”

This allegory using the natural environment extends to our social environment as well: one day, Ellul warns, humanism will disappear and absolute efficiency will reign over the planet.

The adaptation of humans to technique

Ellul is concerned deeply with the modification of what he sees as natural (and naturally good) human behaviour. Because humans are (for now) a necessary ingredient of the technical system, they are subject to optimisation just like any other component.

The world that is created by this optimisation of human activities is totalitarian: it removes humans’ freedom. It seems immediately worthwhile to fight against the loss of our freedom, but Ellul expresses this concern in ways likely to make a modern (secular) reader uneasy. He seems far too romantic, idealising a bucolic past and appealing directly to a divine order for which humans were created. (Ellul was a practising Christian and a noted lay theologian.) In one memorable passage, he insists that “we cannot say with assurance that there has been progress from 1250 to 1950”; the two eras are simply “not comparable” due to the technical distortion of the latter.

Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.

— “Modification of the milieu and space”

The alienation caused by the integration of humans into the technical system makes them miserable—and so they must be entertained, pacified, and existentially comforted. Even the rise of ostensibly-terrible bullshit administrative jobs can be seen as the operation of technique to occupy surplus knowledge workers in advanced economies.

Folk wisdom and new research seem to indicate that there can indeed be value in natural rhythms and environments. A modern solutionist might argue that this is simply because we haven’t perfected our compensatory techniques yet. Ellul would retort that that is exactly the point he is making.

In one complex and ironic example, the addition of plants to an otherwise-artificial workplace was found to increase workers’ happiness, and thereby their productivity. This demonstrates simultaneously the human need to be connected to nature, and the effectiveness of techniques to compensate for this deficiency.

Aldous Huxley was a fan of The Technological Society and said of the book that it “made the case I tried to make in Brave New World.” Though totalitarian, technique is not the authoritarian brute force of George Orwell’s 1984: human adaptation is a key part of how it proceeds to dominate. For, as Ellul writes: “the yield is greater when man acts from consent, rather than constraint.”

Recognising technique

There are obvious and explicit cases where humans apply maximally efficient means to their activities. These means are also applied oppressively to the human workers who are a necessary part of these activities. Almost any form of factory or mass production immediately fits this description. The examples more familiar to us in the wealthy West are subtler.

When trying to discern the effect of technique in history or the modern world, I think the following thematic questions are helpful:

Is human behaviour controlled to suit technical requirements?

Technique channels human behaviour in ways that can be breathtakingly totalitarian, such as in times of total war. It also shapes us in mundane ways, as ubiquitous as the voluntary caging of humans in gym exercise machines to efficiently produce targeted “health” outcomes.

The on-demand economy is a grand experiment in both modifying human work schedules to suit capital requirements, and psychologically adapting the workers to the new system. In order that supply and demand be efficiently matched, algorithms tweak economic variables and incentives. Workers nominally have a “choice” of the schedules they work, but on aggregate must be manipulated for the system to function.

But technique does not only act through technology—these new platforms act in the realm of policy as well. By skirting (or lobbying to actually change) employment and other regulations, on-demand economy companies strive to make labour markets efficient. The technical equation of efficiency they use does not yet incorporate all aspects of human happiness. Most obviously, the worker’s need for job security is entirely ignored in favour of an imagined desire for flexibility. Until the equation can expand to technicise social factors, on-demand economy companies will face resistance and criticism for creating an alienated precariat of temporary workers.

Technique demands that humans become as efficient as machines.

Is human judgement replaced by automatic (e.g. algorithmic) judgement?

There has been, in recent decades, an assault on our understanding of the quality of our own judgement. This vital research has coincided with the appearance of more efficient and widespread means than ever before for replacing human decision-making: electronic computers. The replacement of human judgement may have deep benefits for those who have been victims of the ugly side of human bias and bigotry. But Ellul’s concern is for the effect on humans within the now-efficient system.

Standardised testing in education demonstrates the replacement of human judgement and a concern only for technical factors. Standardised education regimes make grading uniform across all students and locations, and some even attempt to automate it entirely. This removes the scope for the human bias of individual teachers—but removes at the same time the scope for compassionate and engaged teaching.

A 2014 policy brief from the National Council of Teachers of English describes how “standardized tests limit student learning because they focus only on cognitive dimensions, ignoring many other qualities that are essential to student success.” The reason standardised tests do not focus on these factors is because they are not part of a technical definition of success.

Teachers themselves also feel the alienating impact on their profession. Gabbie Stroud, a former teacher, described her experience of demoralisation: “you as a professional know very, very clearly what is best for your students and the direction you should take them in, and you are told again and again to go in another direction.” Educational technique does not, can not, value or trust the individual professional standards of teachers.

Technique only permits technical judgements and motivations.

Does a solution enable, or demand, further technical solutions?

Technique expands its own universe by building upon itself in a “virtuous” cycle of enablement and co-development. When humans encounter problems caused by the application of technique (whether successful or not!), or opportunities afforded by a newly-efficient process, technique itself offers the solution.

The most classic example may be the creation of coal-fired steam engines which initiated the Western industrial revolution. Coal-fired engines were originally used at coal mines to increase the efficiency of mining by pumping water out of the shafts. They ran off the coal they helped unearth; co-locating the production and use of the fuel enabled cost-efficiency. These engines performed so marvellously efficiently that coal became economic enough to use not just at the mines themselves, but to replace wood as the fuel of choice throughout the economy.

Centuries later, the most significant debate in humanity’s response to climate change is over the role of geoengineering. Should we, for example, seed the upper atmosphere with microparticles to negate the warming caused by our extractive energy industry? According to technical experts, this is the only admissible solution. (It may be inevitable anyway, regardless of our future energy policy.) Technique has created the conditions for global climate change by excluding moral factors like sustainability from its calculus. It now offers a solution that enables us to keep ignoring these factors.

Technique expands its own moral universe at the expense of any other.

The hand that feeds

From Ellul’s pessimistic outlook (and my own techno-scepticism if you know me personally), you might take away the message that technique is a force to be feared, rejected, and fought against. Unfortunately, the situation is not that simple; techniques help us achieve our goals, outcomes which themselves may be clearly good.

Every statesman is faced with the dilemma: either he must apply these techniques on their own invariable terms, or he must renounce them and forego the results they tend to produce. We must not lose sight of the fact that techniques furnish the best possible means, each in its own sphere.

— “Technique and constitution”

The examples above, while demonstrating the existence and operation of techniques, cannot be said to be unequivocally bad. They may be flawed, but they are genuine, and often successful, attempts to solve complex problems.

Why should we pay attention to what Ellul wrote over 60 years ago? I believe that any maker of technology who is serious about considering the social and ethical impact of their work should be familiar with the idea of technique.

It is not enough to consider the impact of individual methods, devices, or technologies in isolation. This is an interconnected age, in which technology enables the integration of economies and societies which capital benefits from. To think productively, we need a theory that accommodates, explains, and confronts this interconnectedness.

Ellul’s theory of technique does these things, and so I think it is an idea we should be conversant with. I hope that by examining Ellul’s ideas in today’s context, we can reinvigorate a humane critique not just of this unethical clothing manfacturer, that ride-hailing startup, or those social networks, but of the entire technical system which, in its overwhelming power and autonomy, demands their existence.