Jacques Ellul and the Technological System

Reading time: 8 minutes

Translation by AB – April 15, 2020


Mégamachines

We are in 1977 and the French sociologist Jacques Ellul writes1 :

Isn’t our society already an outright machine? […] The Megamachine is the completely organized, homogenized social system, in which society functions like a machine of which men are the cogs. This kind of organization thanks to total coordination, the continuous increase of order, power, predictability, and above all control, obtained almost miraculous technical results in the first Megamachines that were Egyptian and Mesopotamian societies.

This statement seems a little “simplistic”: men “cogs of a machine”? Anyway … And yet, the verb is intriguing (we come back in another article, Return to Babylon, on what he calls the “Babylonian machine”). Jacques Ellul continues:

Thanks to the means of information and communication, this Megamachine presents […] some of the characteristics of a primary society: everyone is entirely known (recorded in the National Computer). The Computer gathers about each individual a bundle of information hitherto dispersed, which would make intolerable the control of the society, especially since this control will not be exercised by “authorities” but also by the public, by Others, since Everything that concerns everyone can be disseminated, put before everyone’s eyes by means of telecommunications. So, the Megamachine both works abstractly as a social machine and in a totalitarian way by stripping the parts of the machine of their identity.

Well before the deployment of the internet, Ellul already seems to be talking to us with the words of the time, about our good old web 2.0 and its “radical transparency”.

Jacques Ellul is an essential thinker of technique and its effects (see the Wikipedia page dedicated to him2 or the Jacques Ellul International Association website3). However, he remains suspect in the eyes of some because he was a believer and an active Protestant in the Reformed Church. Now, as soon as a thinker speaks from any spirituality, all his concepts are tainted by a suspicion of proselytism (in general, this is not entirely false) and it therefore ends up as the famous baby, that is to say thrown with the sacred bath water. Jacques Ellul is no exception and the result is not always good to see4. But we keep the baby! As we will see, he is still in perfect health.

The Technological System

Jacques Ellul has made the “Technological System” a perfectly clear, stable and useful concept. This note will not be enough to account for it but it will try to give a general meaning.

Let us empty our mind of any idea of transcendence, of any “explanation” of the world, divine form, myth, symbol… and let’s ask ourselves what we have in front of us (apart from the cogito). In the 6th century BC, Parmenides answered pretty much: being! We do not get rid of the gods at no expense… This being is “uncreated, immutable, eternal, without beginning or end” and Parmenides ascribes it the shape of a sphere

Today, 2,500 years later, philosophers continue to discuss. This (very simplified) presentation is not far from corresponding to that of the “Technological System”, a kind of Parmenidian being which would be its own cause, its own end, unaffected and indifferent to man. This is the tricky and surprising point of this concept. Because, obviously, it is the man who created the techniques that surround him for his own use. Jacques Ellul easily aknowledged this problem:

There is a great reluctance to admit the existence of a specific technical organization which could be relatively independent of man.

That’s for sure, and we’re also a little reluctant. It is perhaps precisely there that one can suspect this concept of being proselytizing, in the sense that it serves as support, consciously or not, for the moral demonstration of Jacques Ellul: man being little by little almost more “causing” in this system, it can only get out from the outside, and therefore by the divine. But this is not the subject and that does not detract from the operationality of the concept.

Technology will not tolerate any judgement being passed on it.

Technology will not tolerate any judgement being passed on it.

An “environment”

This System has become for us an “environment” which now presents itself as “already there” to which we have to adapt and that we have to understand (this is roughly Ray’s posture Dalio, see Dalio’s Machine)

The system of nature, that is to say the ecosystem, is now hidden behind the Technological System and stripped of its historical attributes and of our “magical” readings. It is nothing more than a well of resources deprived of signification, and therefore inevitably caused to run out under the requirements of the Technological System.

Having no purpose, being fundamentally neutral (just being, one could say), the Technological System is a-political, a-moral, a-ethical … As Ellul had very well perceived and explained 40 years ago, the Technological System is insensitive to any moral or political inflection. Many have mentioned the powerlessness of politics over technology. Let us quote for example the French philosopher Régis Debray, who declared to the French Parliament in February 19985 :

Technical developments, apart from rarely responding to a program and regularly thwarting prognostics and announcements by futurologists, are not a matter of options or public debate. They are both random in their emergence and restrictive in their implications. Contingent and necessary, involuntary and inexorable. No doubt, if it sees its sovereign missions shrinking day by day, the State is trying to educate, encourage, distribute funds, monitor offenses. But increasingly what is technically desirable is taking precedence over what is politically legitimate.

Which, fundamentally, comes from exactly the same idea, this “Ellulian” idea which makes say to some, of which we are part, that the neutrality of the web, for example, concerns more faith than politics.

A world of problems and solutions

Let’s listen more carefully to Jacques Ellul when he explains how technology makes a system:

The techniques become coherent with each other, they are organized according to each other. The elements, the technical factors, are not simply juxtaposed, they combine with each other. There is a set of “solidarities”, connections, coordination between all objects, methods, etc.

It follows from this a very important feature of the Technological System (which is not, to our knowledge, the most developed by Jacques Ellul): it deploys endlessly, in a fractal way one could say, this particular form of “solidarity” of continuously providing solutions to problems. So much so that technical solutions end up being demanded, required, essential to all the players in an environment whose economy no longer relies exclusively on the marketing of solutions: researchers, producers, consumers, bankers, etc.

This strange thing ends up happening: the Technological System massively produces solutions awaiting problems. These solutions are mostly fairly simple, partly because they are the working condition of the vast majority (this is the case of artificial intelligence which is spreading everywhere today). “Innovation” often involves finding and / or creating from scratch the problems corresponding to technical solutions already there. The result is sometimes grotesque6.

This hyper-fragmentation of our environment in problems / solutions increasingly escapes any possibility of “synthesis” by man, of symbolization and therefore of general meaning. This is why the companies that have become the most powerful are, to our knowledge, linked to the supply of “synthetic solutions”, which require an increasingly considerable energy and financial means: the infrastructures of the Megamachine (Google, etc.), the mainstream internet that Facebook would like to synthesize on its own, the world store that Amazon aims to be (by giving us now what was lacking in the radical “solidarity” of the elements of the System: an “intelligent” consumer: the smart speaker), the electrician and / or the world transporter (Tesla), etc.

But let us not be mistaken: these syntheses are still solutions of the technical system. The corresponding “problems” are, at this level of power, our own economic, political and cultural architectures.

Temporary solutions

Finally, we must remember the stance of Jacques Ellul, whom he himself calls “dialectic”, to understand that he elucidates the concept of Technological System as a sociologist (Marxologist) in order to overhang it as a Christian. Its intimate questioning is of a moral order and, for a man of faith, the moral order cannot come from the system which it is supposed to regulate (we agree – see on this subject A future without us).

The French Philosopher André Comte-Sponville would not pretend anything else7 : the natural “order” of our old systems (spiritual, moral, political and economic) dissolves in a single system of problems / solutions which “technicalizes” them all and becomes the being of our world. It would therefore be necessary, according to Ellul, to find an order, a minimal subordination of the Technological System to a kind of entirely exogenous spirituality.

Rewind 2,500 years of history, turn a blind eye to the Parmenidian being and repopulate the sky of gods? Or, more radical, the famous “solution” by the writer Philip K. Dick, perfectly waterproof to all technicality:

It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.

It would be so disruptive


1. Jacques Ellul – 1977 – Le système technicien
2. Wikipédia – Jacques Ellul
3. Association Internationale Jacques Ellul
4. Yann Kindo in Médiapart May 26, 2016 Jacques Ellul, le Christine Boutin de la Décroissance
5. Régis Debray Y a-t-il une politique de la technique ?
6. Jérôme Marin in Le Monde September 1, 2017 Juicero, la start-up devenue la risée de la Silicon Valley, ferme ses portes
7. André Comte-Sponville, Albin Michel – 2004 – Le capitalisme est-il moral ?


Notes

September 21, 2017 – André Gide

The expression “There is no problem, there are only solutions” comes from the French writer André Gide. To be exact, the full phrase is, “There is no problem, there are only solutions. The human mind then invents the problem”.

October 4, 2017 – Foule très peu sentimentale

A major characteristic of the Technological System, on which we have not yet insisted, is that of the fragmentation (we could say “hashing” or “radical reductionism”) of the problems into sub-problems which are smaller and smaller and then accessible to more automatic and / or simple solutions. This brings us to a “task economy”.

The “crowd” therefore manages with the “crowd labor”, this breakdown of the work paid a few cents per unit. Nothing simpler to benefit from it: Amazon offers for example its “Mechanical Turk”, we have in France of “Crowd Factory” … By concentrating enough, it is possible to earn from 1 to 2 euros per hour to crop photos of the yogurts, which is about what brings the same value than that of one hour of attention to Facebook (The value of e-things).

If these tasks are devolved to us, it is because, for the moment, the machines have failed (filtering illegal content for example). But this shall only last for a while. It could be profitable to develop a cloud solution of specialized artificial micro-intelligences intended to massively collect the few cents offered by these crowd labor platforms and, why not, go to the fraction of a penny per task. From algorithmic trading to “algorithmic crowding” in a way.

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