S576: Technology and Contemporary Life
The Rhode Island School of Design, Wintersession 2003
Notes, January 23rd -- Roger B. Blumberg

Technique and the Future Present

Introduction: Technology, Technique and Defining the Human

One of the dominant themes in The Technological Society is the relationship between technique and dehumanization. To accurately understand Ellul's motivation and point of view, however, it's perhaps necessary to look back to the mid-nineteenth century, to questions that were raised in response to the rapid rise of industrial capitalism about machinery and humanity. We've talked a bit about the Luddite movement, but there was also a critique of industrial technology rooted in humanism rather than economics, and it saw the machinery of industrial capitalism as transforming not just the nature of work but of human nature as well. In 1844, Karl Marx wrote:

The savage and the animal at least have the need to hunt, to move about, etc., the need of companionship. The simplification of machinery and of labor is used to make workers out of human beings who are still growing, who are completely immature, out of children, while the worker himself becomes a neglected child. The machine accommodates itself to man's weakness, in order to turn weak man into a machine. (Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 1844)

Marx didn't believe that this "dehumanization" was a necessary consequence of technology, but rather the fault of the owners/masters and their particular use of it. Ellul claims that if Marx wasn't the first to claim that technique could be liberating, he was the first to "convince the masses of it" (54). Regardless of whether you accept Marx' 19th century analysis of man and machine, the rise and success of industrial capitalism as seen through his eyes clearly raise the questions and assumptions about humanity and technology that still inform and inspire Ellul's text more than a century later. So, before finishing off Ellul, let's consider the following questions:

Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society, chapters 2 & 5

We'll continue our discussion of chapter 2 of Ellul using William's notes and questions. We left off talking about the paragraph on p. 82, and so a good first question might be whether and to what extent we rebel against, and/or are repelled by, the idea that, regardless of our occupations, we have become "technicians" in our daily lives.

Ellul's chapter on "Human Technique" offers both the strongest and weakest arguments in the book, and for readers who find the outlook of The Technological Society terribly bleak the weaknesses of may be sources of hope. We might begin our discussion of this chapter by trying to identify points we consider compelling and those we don't.

Jacques Ellul's "Look at the Future"

We'll begin our discussion of Ellul's last chapter with Michael's notes and questions.

For Next Time: Read "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," by Walter Benjamin. The essay can be found in Benjamin's Illuminations, and an electronic edition is available at http://pixels.filmtv.ucla.edu/gallery/web/julian_scaff/benjamin/benjamin.html.

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© 2003 Roger B. Blumberg