Old Voices Shed New Light


“All technical progress exacts a price. We cannot believe that Technique brings us nothing; but we must not think that what it brings it brings free of charge.”

— Jacques Ellul, “The Technological Order” (1962)

In case you’ve ever wondered, I don’t exactly have a grand research project or even a clearly defined area of interest. You might, in fact, should I ever have occasion to bore you with the details, be surprised to learn just how haphazardly I stumbled into writing about technology. Several years ago now, I reflected a bit on the work of tech criticism, by which, of course, I mean not a reflexive hostility to technology but rather the effort to think well about its meaning and consequences. The gist of it was that, generally speaking, the tech critic thinks and writes for the sake of something other than technology itself, whether that be, for example, the environment, the just society, or the good life. And this is as it should be. Technology is properly a means toward an end, and we get into trouble precisely when it becomes an end in itself.

My writing, I suspect, probably reflects this rather unfocused interest in matters technological, cultural, and moral. Insofar as I have a “thing,” however, I’d say that it is an interest in exploring and applying the work of an older, now mostly forgotten tradition, loosely defined, of technology criticism. It’s an effort I once called, and still occasionally refer to as the recovery of the tech critical canon. If it ever seems that I am saying something new or different, it is more likely the case that what I am saying is simply a variation on some older theme and that it appears novel or original only to the degree that it has been forgotten or ignored.

My explorations along these lines tend to alternate among different strands of this tradition. At times the media ecological strand is top of mind, and the work of scholars like Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman becomes more prominent in my thinking. If you’ve been reading the newsletter of late, for the better part of this year really, you already know that my attention has more recently been mostly on the work of Ivan Illich, one of the few critics to whom I’d attach the epithet “radical,” suggesting one who gets to root of things. The names of others come readily to mind—Lewis Mumford and George Grant among the dead and Albert Borgmann, Wendell Berry, Carl Mitcham, and Langdon Winner among the living. Hannah Arendt, while not ordinarily thought of as a philosopher of technology, strictly speaking, has also served me well in this regard. 

Of late, I’ve had occasion to turn again to the work of Jacques Ellul, the 20th century French scholar, lay theologian, and sometime member of the French Resistance during the Second World War. Ellul was honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by the World Holocaust Remembrance Center for his labors on behalf of Jews fleeing the Nazi regime. While the homage to Illich’s notion of conviviality is evident in the title of this newsletter, I also intended to evoke the title of Ellul’s best known work, The Technological Society.

Of course, it is not that I think Ellul, Illich, or any of the other individuals I’ve mentioned were infallible in their judgments or that they foresaw all of the particular challenges we now face, but I do continue to be struck by the prescience of their analysis and the enduring relevance of their insights. I should add, of course, that I do highly value the work of contemporary writers, many of whom I read with considerable profit. The older critics, however, do have one decided advantage, and that is the advantage of not taking for granted the techno-social configuration that is more or less our default cultural setting and which thus inevitably shapes our thinking about technology. To be clear, this is not necessarily a matter of their keen insight or clear vision, it is, in large measure, simply a matter of chronological vantage point. They came up in a different age, so their experiences allowed them to perceive aspects of the modern technological project that we are more likely to miss if only because we have no similar point of contrast in our experience to illuminate the distinctive contours of our own age. What I’m suggesting, though, is that their work can become just such a point of contrast for us. At least, it has served that function for me (and I hope, by extension, for you as well). Many of their categories and frameworks remain useful, and they point us to alternative ways of being with technology. Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t find occasion to deploy the work of one of these thinkers to make sense of present circumstances. 

As one example, while reading through Ellul recently, I was reminded of his discussion of what he called “technical humanism,” and it caught my attention because of the recent discussions of both the documentary The Social Dilemma and the Center for Humane Technology with which the film is associated. Several individuals connected with the center, former Google employee Tristan Harris most prominent among them, appear in the documentary about the social ills of social media. 

In my feeds, people responded to the The Social Dilemma, which came out in October, in much the same way that they responded to the Center when it was first launched a few years back, which is to say with more than a healthy dose of skepticism and frustration. As far as I can tell, a good bit of the frustration stemmed from the fact that the documentary, and to a similar degree the work of the center, ignored the labors of contemporary academics and activists, who had been raising the alarm about social media companies long before the wayward technologists experienced their ostensible moral awakenings. Fair enough, I say. But then I immediately think about how Ellul and company were likewise marginalized and even scorned, often by contemporary scholars, who were all too ready to dismiss their work. But this is merely a self-indulgent digression—back to what Ellul had to say about technical humanism. 

Writing in The Technological Society, which was first published in 1954, Ellul noted that “the claims of the human being have thus come to assert themselves to a greater and greater degree in the development of techniques; this is known as 'humanizing the techniques.’” But Ellul, who had up to that point in his book gone to great lengths to demonstrate how technique had thoroughly captured society, was not impressed.

Ellul defined technique as (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” Ellul understood that what mattered most about modern technology was not any one artifact or system, but rather a way of being in the world. This form of life or fundamental disposition precedes, sustains, and is reinforced by the material technological order. 

So, Ellul went on, if we seek the “real reason” for humanizing technology “we hear over and over again that there is ‘something out of line’ in the technical system, an insupportable state of affairs for a technician. A remedy must be found." 

But, Ellul invites us to ask, “What is out of line?” “According to the usual superficial analysis,” Ellul answers, “it is man that is amiss. The technician thereupon tackles the problem as he would any other. But he considers man only as an object of technique and only to the degree that man interferes with the proper function of the technique.”

In other words, he continued, “Technique reveals its essential efficiency in discerning that man has a sentimental and moral life. These factors are, for technique, human and subjective; but if means can be found to act upon them, to rationalize them and bring them into line, they need not be a technical drawback. Of course, man as such does not count.”

This humanizing of technology presumes the existing techno-social status quo and ultimately serves its interests. It only amounts to a recalibration of the person so that they may fit all the more seamlessly into the operations of the existing techno-economic order of things. That techno-economic order is itself rarely questioned; it is taken mostly for granted, the myth of inevitability covering a multitude of sins.

I’m not sure we can say that contemporary proponents of humane technology reason precisely by this logic. But neither do I think that they avoid ending up in much the same place, practically speaking. Consider the proliferation of devices and apps, some of which the Center for Humane Technology promotes, which are designed to gather data about everything from our steps to our sleep habits in order to help us optimize, maximize, manage, or otherwise finely calibrate our bodies and our minds. The calibration becomes necessary because the rhythms and patterns of our industrialized and digitized world have proven to be inhospitable to human well-being, while, nonetheless, alleviating certain forms of suffering. One might say that while, for many, although certainly not all, modern technological society has managed to supply various material needs, it has been less adept at meeting many of our non-material needs. And it would be a serious mistake to imagine that only our material needs mattered. So now the same techno-economic forces present themselves as the solution to the problems they have generated. In Ellul’s terms, the answer to problems generated by technique is the application of ever more sophisticated and invasive techniques. The more general technological milieu is never challenged, and there’s very little by way of a robust account of what human flourishing might look like independent of the present technological milieu. 

Ellul also has little time for the “professional humanists” who cheer on such solutions. “This procedure suits the literati, moralists, and philosophers who are concerned about the human situation,” he writes, “Unfortunately, it is a historical fact that this shouting of humanism always comes after the technicians have intervened; for a true humanism, it ought to have occurred before. This is nothing more than the traditional psychological maneuver called rationalizing.”

“It seems impossible to speak of a technical humanism,” Ellul concluded after some further discussion of the matter. It was more likely, in his view, that human beings would simply be forced to adapt to the shape of the technological system. “The whole stock of ideologies, feelings, principles, beliefs, etc. that people continue to carry around and which are derived from traditional situations,” these Ellul believed would only be conceived as unfortunate idiosyncrasies to be eliminated so that the techno-economic system may operate ever more efficiently. “It is necessary (and this is the ethical choice!) to liquidate all such holdovers,” he continued sarcastically, “and to lead humanity to a perfect operational adaptation that will bring about the greatest possible benefit from the technique. Adaptation becomes a moral criterion.”

One is reminded here of how tech enthusiast Robert Scoble recently tweeted his thanks to a man killed in a Tesla accident a couple of years back for his sacrifice, which, Scoble explained, helped improve the auto-pilot’s functioning. The tweet now appears to have been deleted. Scoble, who recorded his video message while riding with his children in a Tesla by the site of the accident, got a fair amount of heat for it. It is possible to imagine someone making the case for the inevitable costs of technological progress in a less callous if no less objectionable fashion, of course, and without also presuming to speak for the family of the victim. What struck me was the way Scoble spoke with almost religious fervor, as if technological progress was a transcendent value for which the sacrifice of a mere human life was an ultimately negligible price to pay. Indeed, one which the victim, unwitting as he no doubt was, ought to have been grateful to make. It is was not enough, it would seem, to accept the tragedy. One must celebrate it.

Later, in the midst of the backlash, he tweeted, “Twitter is rough tonight but I have sailed rougher seas. People never understand the future at first.” One begins to imagine why Illich, when he was once asked to forecast the future, sharply replied, “To hell with the future! It’s a man-eating idol.”

Returning once more to Ellul, later in a 1983 article about ethics and technology, he also recognized the problem which still plagues us but that few seem to acknowledge: those who call for ethical technology presume that human beings “must create a good use for technique or impose ends on it, but [are] always neglecting to specify which human beings.”

“Is the ‘who’ not important?” Ellul asked. “Is technique able to be mastered by just any passer-by, every worker, some ordinary person? Is this person the politician? The public at large? The intellectual and technician? Some collectivity? Humanity as a whole? For the most part politicians cannot grasp technique, and each specialist can understand an infinitesimal portion of the technical universe, just as each citizen only makes use of an infinitesimal piece of the technical apparatus. How could such a person possibly modify the whole?”

Needless to say, the situation has hardly improved on this score in the last 30+ years. In fact, technological systems have become ever more complex and our governing institutions more dysfunctional.

It’s worth noting that Ellul’s work was often dismissed by later scholars precisely because it attempted to consider “the whole,” to speak about technological society, to make judgements about the total techno-social package. This approach was rejected in favor of granular analysis of technological development, which avoided sweeping claims about something as vague as “the technological order.” This makes a certain amount of sense, and it has yielded valuable insights. But it came at the cost of missing the proverbial forest for the trees, ignoring larger patterns and cumulative effects. The contingencies evident at a micro-level of analysis compound into culturally formative currents. The complete technological milieu has a total effect that is greater than its constituent parts, just as the total effect of a work of fiction cannot be properly assessed merely by tabulating literary devices and figures of speech. And these effects include shifting assumptions, new habits and dispositions, the dissolving and reconstitution of the plausibility structures sustaining political values, the redrawing of the horizons of expectation and desire, restructurings of the social order, the reshaping of our imagination, and a reorientation of our experience of the world. None of which will be apparent from a social history of the refrigerator, however interesting such a tale might be.

Now, while readers of The Technological Society would be forgiven for assuming that Ellul was overly fatalistic, providing neither a path forward nor any measure of hope, that was not exactly true. It’s just that Ellul intended for readers to engage the whole of his corpus (over 40 books!) and read his sociological works in dialectic tension with his theological reflections, in which Kierkegaard and the Swiss theologian Karl Barth loom large. One might even say that, in this expectation, Ellul was, in fact, overly optimistic! In any case, he did make an argument for the value freedom as it arises out of a condition of perceived necessity presented by contemporary technology. It was precisely against the background of necessity that freedom could exist.

To one interviewer he said, “I would say two things to explain the tenor of my writings. I would say, along with Marx, that as long as men believe that things will resolve themselves, they will do nothing on their own. But when the situation appears to be absolutely deadlocked and tragic, then men will try and do something.” (As odd as it may seem to some contemporary American readers, it could be said that Marx and Jesus where the two pillars of Ellul’s thought.)

“Thus it is,” Ellul went on to explain,

that I have written to describe things as they are and as they will continue to develop as long as man does nothing, as long as he does not intervene. In other words, if man rests passive in the face of technique, of the state, then these things will exist as I have described them. If man does decide to act, he doesn’t have many possibilities of intervention but some do continue to exist. And he can change the course of social evolution. Consequently, it’s a kind of challenge that I pose to men. It’s not a question of metaphysical fatalism.”

Seen in this light, Ellul’s work was an effort not simply to instruct but also to provoke. And it is to provoke us toward the realization of a measure of freedom available only when we fully reckon with the reality that opposes it.

I would only add this note in closing. We ought to understand freedom as having two dimensions: freedom from and freedom for. Too often we fail to consider that freedom is fully realized only when it is conceived not only as a freedom from restraint, but also as a freedom to fulfill a deeper calling toward which freedom itself is but a penultimate means. The two are related but not identical. What Ellul would have us see is that the modern technological order tends to promise the former while simultaneously eroding the latter.

News and Resources

  • An introduction and invitation to the work of the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (whose work I’ve found personally stimulating as I have thought about technology over the years):

    “Perceiver and perceived, then, are drawn into the cohesion of life. In the posthumous collection The Visible and the Invisible (1964), Merleau-Ponty wrote of the shared ‘interworld’ where ‘our gazes cross and our perceptions overlap’; it is here, he says, that the ‘intertwining’ of your life with other people’s lives is revealed. Far from a world of detached egos, or one of mere objects, what we encounter through embodied perception is this crisscrossing of lateral, overlapping relations with other people, other creatures and other things – an expressive space that exists between lived bodies. It’s not that we are all ‘one’, but that we inhabit a world in which, to quote the philosopher Glen Mazis, ‘things, people, creatures intertwine, interweave, yet do not lose the wonder that each is each and yet not without the others’.”

  • A couple of short primers on Ellul I usually recommend. One by Samuel Matlack at The New Atlantis and the other by Doug Hill in the Boston Globe.

  • Here is Carl Mitcham’s “Three Ways of Being-With Technology” alluded to in the essay above and from which the chart was taken.

  • If I may be forgiven for recommending my own work, this was the first essay I wrote for The New Atlantis a couple of years back. It covers some of the same ground as this newsletter. This is one of those pieces, which, having looked back on it some time later, I still feel pretty good about.

    “We fail to ask, on a more fundamental level, if there are limits appropriate to the human condition, a scale conducive to our flourishing as the sorts of creatures we are. Modern technology tends to encourage users to assume that such limits do not exist; indeed, it is often marketed as a means to transcend such limits. We find it hard to accept limits to what can or ought to be known, to the scale of the communities that will sustain abiding and satisfying relationships, or to the power that we can harness and wield over nature. We rely upon ever more complex networks that, in their totality, elude our understanding, and that increasingly require either human conformity or the elimination of certain human elements altogether. But we have convinced ourselves that prosperity and happiness lie in the direction of limitlessness. ‘On the contrary,’ wrote Wendell Berry in a 2008 Harper’s article, ‘our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible.’”

  • On the mystery of that Gatwick drones:

    “Most people with any interest in the Gatwick drone have already made their mind up. Either the initial sighting was a mistake, and subsequent sightings were the result of mass panic or confirmation bias, as proved by the technical unfeasibility of what was described. Or there was a drone, and the same technical challenges are evidence that it was an extremely sophisticated attack, one that we should be wary of dismissing.”

  • A discussion of some of the main themes in the work of Walter Ong, “Looking Is Not Enough: Reflections on Walter J. Ong and Media Ecology” (h/t to Mike Plugh). This in particular merits reflection:

    “Ong argued that all technological mediation requires some level of interpretation. Where face-to-face interaction presented one interiority to another, the technologies of rhetoric added a distortion, so that people had to learn how to understand rhetorical products—at least according to Plato and Aristotle. Written texts demand more interpretation: what do these marks mean? This interpretation occurs both at the level of the code itself and at the level of the text. Printed texts include more helps to interpretation: type face, type style, page arrangement, the attention to visual patterns that influence thought, and so on. Products of secondary orality demand more, not less, interpretation since they involve a deception—the hiding of the text on which they depend. Digital materials, as being yet more abstract, require more interpretation. And so it goes. In Ong’s titular phrase, ‘Hermeneutic Forever.’”

    Bonus: Here is audio of a talk Walter Ong gave in 1972.

  • A tryptic: 1. “How Trees Made Us Human.” 2. “The Social Life of Forests.” 3. Alan Jacobs’s recently re-designed site, “The Gospel of the Trees.”

    From the second piece: “Although plants are obviously alive, they are rooted to the earth and mute, and they rarely move on a relatable time scale; they seem more like passive aspects of the environment than agents within it. Western culture, in particular, often consigns plants to a liminal space between object and organism. It is precisely this ambiguity that makes the possibility of plant intelligence and society so intriguing — and so contentious.” Yet not one mention of ents!

  • Article by Jacques Ellul titled “The Technological Order.” Published in 1962, two years before The Technological Society would appear in English. Useful introduction to his work.

    “Since Technique has become the new milieu, all social phenomena are situated in it. It is incorrect to say that economics, politics, and the sphere of the cultural are influenced or modified by Technique; they are rather situated in it, a novel situation modifying all traditional social concepts. Politics, for example, is not modified by Technique as one factor among others which operate upon it; the political world is today defined through its relation to the technological society. Traditionally, politics formed a part of a larger social whole; at the present the converse is the case.”

  • On “the peril of persuasion in the Big Tech age.” This article focuses on the dangers posed by novel digital technologies of persuasion, chiefly that citizens may be manipulated and misled by finely tuned and targeted misinformation. Fine as far as it goes, but it seems to me that the more significant consequence of the digital media environment will be that the ideal of a public sphere ordered around persuasion will itself become implausible to a growing number of people. The divide will be between those who continue earnestly presuming such an ideal and those willing to take advantage of such earnestness for their own ends.

  • Long-ish piece on why time management is ruining our lives. I suspect most of you reading this don’t need to be convinced of the titular claim. Here’s one brief excerpt:

    “The allure of the doctrine of time management is that, one day, everything might finally be under control. Yet work in the modern economy is notable for its limitlessness. And if the stream of incoming emails is endless, Inbox Zero can never bring liberation: you’re still Sisyphus, rolling his boulder up that hill for all eternity – you’re just rolling it slightly faster.”

    Now here is Ellul from the essay linked just above this one: “It is useless to hope that the use of techniques of organization will succeed in compensating for the effects of techniques in general; or that the use of psycho-sociological techniques will assure mankind ascendancy over the technical phenomenon.”

    Part of the problem, of course, is that technique itself forms our environment and shapes our moral imagination. The appeal of discreet instances of technique lies in their promise of fulfilling the logic of Technique writ large, which goes by many names, such as Productivity or Efficiency. But these are at best means to an end that have been taken as ends in themselves. We have no clear sense of where we ought to go, but we’re sure that we ought to be getting there faster and more efficiently.

  • On “the coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty”:

    ”Low-income individuals bear the brunt of the shift toward algorithms. They are the people most vulnerable to temporary economic hardships that get codified into consumer reports, and the ones who need and seek public benefits. Over the years, Gilman has seen more and more cases where clients risk entering a vicious cycle. ‘One person walks through so many systems on a day-to-day basis,’ she says. ‘I mean, we all do. But the consequences of it are much more harsh for poor people and minorities.’”

  • Shannon Mattern on the cultural history of plexiglass:

    ”Plexi pairs visual access with physical distance in order to sanction exchange: the handover of money or goods, the serving of food, the verification of identity and confirmation of action, the transmission of messages (albeit through somewhat muffled voices and blurred facial expressions). The presence of plexi prompts us to suspend our fear of contamination while we engage in necessary transactions. Its assurances, even if partly a matter of ‘security theater,’ can serve vital cultural and economic functions: they keep us shopping, going out to eat, attending class, congregating at political rallies. But it is also through plexiglass that Americans have, for decades, been negotiating social tensions and civil unrest.”


— From the conclusion of Xiaowei Wang’s reflections on factory farming:

Life outside may not always be grandiose, visible, or permanent, but as the constant failed attempts at biosecurity show, nothing is steady or stable. As COVID-19 continues, from afar I get glimpses of the village on social media—while my life in the city has been suspended, they continue to plant rice, raise chickens, and make rice wine. Life outside requires a focus on mutual care; a vocabulary of tending to the future that we increasingly hear calls for; a kind of thoughtfulness that asks us to attend to the present moment and the communities we are accountable to. Life outside requires us, as urban dwellers, to think outside, too—outside ourselves and our cities. To think of life outside, beyond containment, is an experiment in imagining new forms of security beyond the kind shaped by market forces.

— I suspect that many of you already knew about the 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi, which is the Hopi word for “life out of balance.” I did not, until recently, when I also learned that the director, Godfrey Reggio, was inspired by the work of Ellul and Illich. My thanks to Madhu Prakash for pointing me to it. Here is a short interview with Reggio about the film. From the credits:

The Conversation

Folks, it’s been quite a year. I’ve got nothing else to say for it presently, except that it is almost behind us. The Convivial Society, having lumbered through the last part of this year, will enter its second year with renewed focus and perhaps a few tweaks. More about that next time.

As I usually include links to things I’ve written here, so here’s one to recent essay on Ivan Illich: “The Skill of Hospitality.” Also, it was a year ago that I put together a collection of my writing on the old blog, which you can find here.

Finally, I’ve recently found a few email replies to the newsletter in my spam folder. This has happened before, but it’s been awhile and I’ve been remiss in reviewing what’s been going in there. So, I’ll do my best to get back to those in the coming days, although it will likely be slow-going through the holidays.

My best to all of you. May this season bring you and yours a measure of joy.