When I was a junior in high school, I concluded that the purpose of the English curriculum was to make us all despondent and suicidal, the reading list including such cheerful works as Camus’s The Stranger and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. For bonus points, in French that year I read Sartre’s Huis Clos (that’s No Exit for you non-French-taking folks) and a few other choice pieces of literature about doom, gloom, and sometimes murder. I was reminded of this general French tendency to despair in reading Jacques Ellul’s book, The Technological Society and have come to the conclusion that many French writers’ books should come with a pack of Gauloises and as much red wine as necessary to dull the pain.
Not that the book was not worth reading. Despite the fact that it was written in 1964, it has a lot of relevance to our current situation as creatures in a society driven by technology. I can only imagine what Ellul would make of our Internet age.
His central argument is that technology (or technique, in his preferred usage) is the primary force in our societies. It is no longer a tool that humans use to improve conditions. Instead, it shapes people and society according to its own particular needs for maximum efficiency. He contends that we are, essentially, helpless to combat this overwhelming force because there is no longer any place where one can truly go off the grid.
That first part is fairly convincing. He musters a lot of good thinking and research to back up his contention that technology wins. I’m not so sure about the second part where we can’t retake our souls from the machine. I would like to think that we are not without hope.