For 300 years we’ve been living under the broad concept of progress, driven by technology. While there have been downs (slavery, world wars) there have been plenty of ups if you look at global economic readings like GDP or life expectancy. Tech, as they say, is good.
Or perhaps not. Rather than humankind inventing and commandeering technology to progress humanity, maybe technology has us in its vice-like grip and is in fact leading us to destroy ourselves.
The historian and sociologist Jacques Ellul had a term for this. In his 1954 book The Technological Society, Ellul showed how technology — which began innocuously enough as a servant of humankind — threatens to overthrow humanity itself in pursuit of the internal logic of its own development.
It’s a description of the way in which technology has become completely autonomous and is in the process of taking over the traditional values of every society without exception, “subverting and suppressing these values to produce a monolithic world culture in which all non-technological difference and variety are mere appearance,” translator John Wilkinson writes in his introduction to the book.
Remember Ellul was writing 70 years ago. If anything, the noose has tightened.
In an essay explaining why Ellul’s ideas still matter, Samuel Matlack, managing editor of The New Atlantis, says, “Society writ large runs on a logic that under normal circumstances indeed works smoothly, but the point is that we don’t run it — it runs us.”
Ellul theorized something called Technique which can be summed up as “efficiency.”
“Our society no longer asks why we should do anything. All that matters anymore, Ellul argued, is how to do it — to which the canned answer is always: More efficiently!”
Matlack bring this up to date. In the pandemic spring and summer of 2020, during nationwide lockdown, our food supply chains were failing. Yet at the same time some farmers were destroying crops, euthanizing chickens, pigs, and cows, and dumping milk. In the UK too, due to the combined impact of COVID and Brexit, there have been a lack of workers to populate the country’s abattoirs. With pigs only “designed” to be grown to a certain size on the farm before they are to be shipped to abattoirs, farms ran out of space and mass cullings of pigs on farms had to be made.
That’s insane — and what the food journalist Michael Pollan, writing in the New York Review of Books, has called “economic efficiency gone mad.”
You could apply that argument to the supply chains across industries too. The grounding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal, natural disasters, and COVID-related factory shutdowns clogged the global supply chain with effects that are still unwinding.
The just-in-time reliance on the efficiency of the supply chain turns out to be hugely inefficient and wasteful when things don’t go according to plan.
“This is technique, ‘efficiency gone mad,’ and we can understand Ellul’s writing on this subject as an effort to see the same underlying logic that produced our food system also producing analogous systems in areas as seemingly disparate as education, industry, and art,” says Matlack. “Technique, says Ellul, is society’s tightest constraint on us, and we must feel the totality of its grip in order to find the freedom to act.”
This is because he believed that our standard approach to the idea of progress offers a false picture of human agency. It exaggerates our ability to plan and execute change to our fundamental social structures. It is utopian.
“To arrive at an honest view of human freedom, responsibility, and action, Ellul believed, we must confront the fact that we are constrained in more ways than we like to think.
Matlack can’t decide whether the French thinker was a hardened pessimist or whether he was offering a way out of our impasse from Technique.
You might come to your own conclusion reading his essay. I can only say that the number of times the word “efficiency,” or worse, “efficiency savings,” is used in marketing communications by broadcast industry tech vendors makes you fear the worst.