Technique: the universal reign of efficiency

Reading Ellul par lui-même has reminded me how subtle and far-reaching is Jacques Ellul’s analysis of “technique” (his term for what we might call “technology as a social force”). It’s not just a case of “technology is bad, so you’re a hypocrite to read Ellul on your Kindle or iPhone”.

Ellul argues that technique, rather than capital, has become the driving force in our society. He goes on to present his understanding of technique over several chapters.

One of the key objections that is made to Ellul’s theory is that human beings have always used techniques, so how is today any different? As one of his critics put it, “the difference between a flint axe and the atom bomb is only one of degree”.

Against this, Ellul argues that, prior to the 18th century, techniques were used for a variety of reasons – cultural, traditional, religious – but rarely out of a concern of efficiency. What has changed since the 18th century is that technique has become a matter of finding the most effective and efficient means of achieving any particular goal, across every area of human existence.

Nor is technique just a matter of “technology” in the sense of machinery or computers. Psychological techniques, such as propaganda and advertising, are also part of the “technical phenomenon”. (Think of how computer games companies now hire psychologists, to help them find ways to make games more compelling and addictive.)
In sport, also, intuition has been replaced by “rigorous methods of training, rest and nutrition” (not to mention le dopage…).

Ellul argues that the industrial revolution should not be studied in isolation, but as only one aspect of a wider technical revolution in which various social factors – increased population, the loss of old social structures, the accumulation of capital and so on – combined to create a society which had very different values from those which had preceded it.

The first of these values is the work ethic – the belief that work is virtuous in and of itself. For all that technology may lighten the burden of any particular task, as a whole the western world has ended up working harder than any previous society. The “double game” of technique, Ellul suggests, is to make people work flat-out while always holding out the prospect that technology will eventually enable us to live a life of leisure.

The second key value for the technological society is happiness – and, in particular, happiness conceived in terms of material possessions and material consumption, rather than in spiritual or intellectual terms.

Technique has transformed our society, destroying the old order which had remained “tribal or patriarchal”. It has resulted in a new division of classes, Ellul argues: no longer between “capitalists” and “workers”, but between those who are skilled in bureaucratic, administrative or scientific techniques (or financial ones, we might add), and those who are not. Neither politics, law, art nor religion has been immune – but that (in particular the last) is for another post.

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1 thought on “Technique: the universal reign of efficiency”

  1. An interesting etymological point on the origin of the word efficiency: its modern usage (essentially, the ratio of useful outputs to inputs) only arose in the mid-nineteenth century.

    Though I suspect it’s probably over-stating it a little to say efficiency was rarely a reason for adopting certain practices. One need only sit dreaming up examples to see why. What was the printing press if not a more efficient way to produce books? It certainly wasn’t adopted because its output was more aesthetically pleasing!

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