This comment is only metaphorically related to the post. I rode my touring bicycle in the Santa Fe Century yesterday, (which was also my fifty-seventh birthday). As usual, I wore my street clothes - some Carhartt pants, a wool t-shirt, and a seersucker shirt. They're comfortable. I have cycling shorts. I have a cycling jersey. I'm happier and just as physically comfortable in my street clothes. No one, I mean no one, was in street clothes but me. It was a sea of lycra. I felt I stood out like a sore thumb. I could see the "...and becomes a hypochondriac" part of Ellul's statement: Maybe I should wear cycling shorts, even though I have done and have an informed experience of my own personal preference. Am I missing something? Did I make the wrong choice? I think cycling wear and lightweight cycling everything must be part of La Technique. (I still managed 115 miles in about eight and a half hours, in spite of my maladjustment and all around bad attitude.)

Expand full comment

I think the trouble, perhaps as I can understand it meagerly, is that Ellul was what Albert Borgmann would call determinist in his views. I think he called it in its entirety “technological value determinism” or the “substantive” view. As in, technology is such a force it has no rivals. This camp tends to be anti-technologist. I’m sure there are many here among us.

But I think I’m with Borgmann here in thinking two contesting thoughts:

1) Being fully invested in the determinist view usually amounts to the idea that we have no agency as humans vis-à-vis technology. That technology fully determines what we do. And while it’s insightful, I’m not sure I’m convinced.

2) Yes, we should see the dark and worrisome side of technology as a taking up with reality, but in taking a paradigmatic view we should recognize it’s cultural force, discuss it, then reform it. (Easier said then done, or course!)

I think I can agree with you, Ellul’s brilliant observations, and Borgmann’s optimism in understanding how la technique has created an ordering that is extremely dangerous to our practices and our ability to engage meaningful in the world. But even now with the techno-economic crescendo of AI and social media and other capitalist technology tearing at the fabric of our lives, we can relate ourselves to technology in a way that resists it’s devastation of our essence as world disclosers AND take it up in a positive way. Such as using certain technological instruments that do more than respond to our subjective desires, by using them to open up new ways of being ourselves.

As always, thank you for a place to think.

Expand full comment

"So, in brief, here is the point I’m driving at. Perhaps it is simply the case that a society ordered by technique, by the relentless pursuit of optimization, by a compulsive search for the “one best way,” necessarily yields a mental health crisis by generating unattainable goals and unsustainable pressures to, quite literally, measure up."

As a teacher in the UK, I think this is an excellent explanation of why we find official inspections utterly ludicrous and harmful. They are measuring school performance against an utopian target. All human communities are dysfunctional and suboptimal in every respect, especially real schools, but some of us used to look up to the stars and at least hit our heads on the streetlights from time to time. Now, we're all 'delivering' lessons - which I presume an algorithm could do better - and inputting meaningless data. Are they trying to replace human teachers? Or am I succumbing to paranoia? (Just because you think they're out to get you, doesn't mean there not. 😂)

Expand full comment

"So, once again I invite us to ask a simple question: Is there, in fact, “one best way” in every realm of experience? And even if there were, at what cost would we discover it? And what would we gain? Might it be that in the course of pursuing the “one best way,” we would lose our way in a more profound sense?"

This series of questions has echoes with the idea, given expression in both Aristotle and J. S. Mill (though each in his own way), that some goods are uncapturable, unexperienceable, if subject to explicit, deliberate, or focused pursuit.

One such good, according to Aristotle, seems to be friendship: the more you calculate how to achieve it with someone, the more true friendship with that someone recedes. Another example might be literary style. (See Lola Seaton's review of Brian Dillon's book, Affinities.) Health might be another example.

Both Aristotle and Mill suggested that happiness is another — though of course each meant something different by the term. As Mill puts it, "Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than happiness. . . . Aiming thus at something else, they are happy by the way."

Happiness, and the others, seem to emerge only in virtue of something like grace.

Expand full comment