Technological Pessimism

Robert A. Wauzzinski

Indiana University
POLIS Research Center
Cavanagh Hall 
301425 University Blvd
Indianapolis, Indiana 46202-5140

This article will explore the critique made against technology by several technological pessimists. I argue that they are so designated because their overall assessment of the meaning and the place of technology within our lives is a negative one. That is, they view technology as destroying human freedom, corrupting our social process, and degrading our natural environment. Technology has even become a "demonic idol," according to one of the persons surveyed. The paper will focus primarily on representative work of Jacques Ellul, a Christian, with brief discussion of neo-Marxist JŞrgen Habermas as well as the views of Nicholas Berdyaev.

From: PSCF 46 (June 1994): 98-114.

p.98

This article surveys the thought of some representative technological pessimists and their overwhelmingly negative view of the place and the meaning of modern technique. It will focus especially on the thought of Jacques Ellul. His definition of technique is representative.

... technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given state of development) in every field of human activity. Its characteristics are new; the technique of the present has no common measure with that of the past.1

The technological pessimists have argued that the meaning and imposition of modern technique is decidedly negative. Its products must be avoided if life in any sense is to be saved. I see no facile optimism, no calculations of the tradeoffs between the positives and the negatives of technique here, nor any attempt to locate technique within the context of life's many demands.2 The technological pessimists will only see the dark side of technique.

I have chosen to examine three representative, interdisciplinary figures ˇ Jacques Ellul (in the main), JŞrgen Habermas, and Nicholas Berdyaev ˇ for two basic reasons. First, they represent two important intellectual traditions, since Ellul and Berdyaev are Christians and Habermas is a neo-Marxist. Second, their command of the breadth of knowledge qualifies them to address so crucial a topic as the place of technique in our lives. Certainly there are other representative figures, as the reader will see if he or she scans the notes. But in my opinion these three figures uniquely confront the modern reader with the problem of technique in disciplines as far ranging as theology and the philosophy of mathematics.

I also note that the two Christian authors employ theological categories in conjunction with their sociological and philosophical analyses of technique. A recognition of this fact is mandatory for our understanding. If we only discern, say, an author's views on technology, we miss much of his additional thought and therefore render our analysis superficial. This task of understanding the whole of one's thought is especially important for the "dialectical" thought of Jacques Ellul.

Jacques Ellul and Pessimism

One of the most recognized and widely respected technologists is French social theorist Jacques Ellul. This Protestant thinker has thrown down the gauntlet to the modern reader by arguing that technology has not produced a heaven on earth; it has spawned a gulag. The technological prison that surrounds and defines us is totalitarian, autonomous, "demonic," and insidious in character. In fact, it is so all- encompassing that society can be called technological. That is, according to Ellul, society exists by, for, and unto technology.

p. 99

We begin to discern the force, scope and methods Ellul believes modern technology employs when we see words in his definition like "totality," "rationally arrived at," "absolute efficiency," and "every field." Ellul is arguing that the technical process is orchestrated by autonomous rationality, a rationality that allegedly operates on its own laws. The end of this rationality is the efficient control of every area of life. The methods of technical experts ˇ scientific, investigative, technical, productive ˇ are the avenues used by autonomous reason. The social influence of these technical methods is both extensive and intensive. Technique deeply transforms the fabric of life. People, the natural world, the workings of science, views about our humanity and traditional religion, as well as art and politics all come under the tyranny of modern technique.

It would be a mistake to believe that Ellul equates technique with technical objects. While tools, weapons, cars, computers etc., are technologically made, these objects do not represent the heart or core meaning of technique for Ellul. Rather, technique is an autonomous social process. Technique produces a rational, step-by-step, procedural way of living. Technique can be practically seen in factories, bureaucracies, research and development teams, city planning, committees, and other means.

The "expert" most clearly and explicitly demonstrates this technical mentality. Experts are "specialists" who have "mastered" (or have controlled) a field because of their "competency" (or narrowed specialties) to evaluate and "solve" (by rational means) problems. Professional acceptance and self esteem come with the credentialing process that labels one an "expert." These experts, in turn, impart methods or techniques to us for solving life's problems. We trust these experts to give us advice covering all crucial areas of life. However, Ellul contends that in trusting these experts for solutions we lose our freedom and integrity, which he believes are essential for life.

 Technique's Attributes

According to Ellul, technique is above all "religious" ˇ in two senses. He claims that technique is autonomous, a law unto itself. "Technique has become autonomous; it has fashioned an omnivorous world which obeys its own laws and which has renounced all traditions."3 Technique is also universal, its reign so complete that traditional religions and associated mores fall prey to its sovereignty. Ellul argues that the western technical and economic secularization that significantly remade the "Shah's Iran" is one of the best examples of technique's ability to overrule traditional Islamic society. Traditional customs and values, such as a male-dominated relatively rigid social system, or a hatred of Marxism and capitalism (in theory), were eroded by technique. In their place came the western "virtues" of materialism, efficiency, modernization, production, and "equality." Furthermore, the means used to overthrow the Shah and embarrass the United States were those of modern technique. Manipulated television images, brandished weapons, petro-dollars, and social methods like demonstrations were among the various techniques used. Thus, in this case, technique was used to remake society and overwhelm the influence of the Islamic faith.

In addition, Ellul argues, technique is religious in a second sense. Modern technology has usurped the place of the sacred. A deity is not venerated because the deity is not seen and is therefore not amenable to manipulation and calculation. In place of the deity, we "praise" technology. And while this praise is not literally doxological, it is veneration nonetheless. The optimists' faith in humanity is projected onto the technical object constructed by instrumental rationality. The triumph of human ingenuity becomes a "technical triumph." The pride that wells up within us when, say, the steam engine is unveiled, is attributed to the object itself. And thus Ellul contends,

p. 100

 Nothing belongs any longer to the realm of the gods .... The individual who lives in the technological milieu knows very well that there is nothing spiritual anywhere. But man cannot live without the sacred. He therefore transfers his sense of the sacred to the very thing which has destroyed its former object: to technique itself.4

Technique is the primary and unique form of modern desacralization.


The triumph of human ingenuity becomes a "technical triumph." 
The pride that wells up within us when, say, 
the steam engine is unveiled, is attributed to the object itself.


Technique's power is not restricted to the domain of the sacred. Its power is palpably manifest in the bureaucratic process. Seemingly endless streams of divisions and subdivisions, administrators, rules, forms and procedures constitute the modern form of authority for many social processes. Efficiency, speed of access and exit, and expert knowledge became the key intellectual virtues one needs to negotiate the bureaucracy. "Specialization," mastery, and rote recall became the goal of education qua well-oiled educational pipeline. This process is especially evident in modern academia.

Ellul maintains, moreover, that technique dominates science. Methods, procedures, classification, controlling variables, and the manipulation of material (like gene manipulation) suggest that science itself is dominated by technique.

We may object that sport and play are certainly not dominated by technique. Play represents the free movement of the human body according to an athletic imagination. While this may be true in childhood, consider how children are trained in play. The effervescent little youngster becomes introduced to techniques of play that will enhance winning. Specialization is encouraged in an early age. Motion, thought, and raw ability are transformed into efficient movements and well-practiced, repeatable operations that are machine-like in their quality. Is it any wonder, therefore, why we label our preeminent sports personalities with technological metaphors? In the 1970s, baseball's Cincinnati Reds were called the "Big Red Machine" because of their power, efficiency, speed, and productive capabilities. These professionals played on "Astroturf," a space-age product whose name and function serves to technologically separate play from nature.


We know Marxism and socialism are infamous for their 
methodological control of the market. 
Is capitalism similarly controlled? 
Or is the market free of the grip of technique?


Technique is no respecter of economic views or geographic boundaries. Industrialization is an example of a world-encompassing ideology.5 Communism, socialism, and capitalism are all driven by the same mechanical techniques.6 We know Marxism and socialism are infamous for their methodological control of the market. Is capitalism similarly controlled? Or is the market free of the grip of technique?

In The New Industrial State John K. Galbraith argues that markets are no longer free, if by free we mean separated from large governmental, organizational, and bureaucratic influences. The larger and more complex the technology used in competitive markets, the greater will be the requirements of specialization, capital commitment, and most importantly, market manipulation. Galbraith calls this organization the "techno-structure." This techno-structure serves several necessary functions. Because economies of scale require large pools of labor, individual worker freedom must be subordinated to corporate management objectives. Experts are placed at the head of each division to facilitate greater speed and efficiency in decision-making. This entire corporation, argues Galbraith, forces the individual to adopt, identify with, and become motivated by company directives. The company becomes a unified productive process. Promotion and recognition depend upon adapting to the prime directives. The same must be said for economic desires in the market. They must be manipulated in excess of needs so profits can meet capital requirements.7 In fact, this manipulation is really seduction because we believe we are "free to choose," to use a phrase made famous by noted economist Milton Friedman. Glutted consumer markets mean unemployment. Mass production must mean not only production and consumption by the masses, but massive consumption by consumers and producers.

p. 101


Technology defines the universe we live in, 
by using cause and effect metaphors to describe 
the laws that govern reality. 
When viewed in these mechanistic terms, God loses the role of personal, 
providential sustainer of the creation, and 
an impersonal deus ex machina, a god from the machine, is substituted.


Ellul argues that technology has become personal. He feels that the preeminent symbol defining humanity has become Homo faber; man the tool maker; information processing systems; complex computers. Furthermore, technology defines the universe we live in, by using cause and effect metaphors to describe the laws that govern reality. When viewed in these mechanistic terms, God loses the role of personal, providential sustainer of the creation, and an impersonal deus ex machina, a god from the machine, is substituted. And, continues Ellul, if we think that the main branch of the Judeo-Christian culture does not understand God in these mechanistic terms, we are mistaken. We understand evil as inexorable, just as we understand technique as irresistible. Ellul goes so far as to argue that technique is so totalitarian in nature that it offers successful resistance to God's counter-veiling love.8 "The dawn of the enslavement of the worker, the destruction of the environment and the bombardment of the consumer with a world of gadgets,"9 these unmitigated evils are proof to Ellul that God has not chosen to resist evil.

The modern state enhances the scope and the ideological impact of technique. The state can use various techniques to control the military, administrative and social sectors of culture. "The basic effect of state action on technique is to coordinate the whole complex. The state possesses the power of unification, since it is the planning power par excellence in society."10

The nuclear industry is a case in point. The federal government funded the initial research for the splitting of the atom. Then we funded the "Atoms for Peace" project. Using the process of fission, we hoped to create a major source of cheap, abundant power. The problems of clean-up, burial of wastes, leakages, and explosion have demonstrated that the splitting of atoms has not been an entirely "peaceful" project, nor has it been a local one. Indeed, the federal government has furthered technique's power by strengthening the bureaucratic/administrative system that surrounds fission. The variety of technique surrounding Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the state of Washington is the best example of this technical problem: technique (bureaucracy and on-line equipment) was created to put Hanford on nuclear line then technique was used to clean up fission's mess.


 Technique is, moreover, ecumenical and international; 
it canvasses the whole earth remolding different cultures 
into one more or less unified world system.


Technique is, moreover, ecumenical and international; it canvasses the whole earth remolding different cultures into one more or less unified world system. Therefore, as technical objects are transferred from "first" to "second," to "third," and now "fourth" world countries, ideology travels with them.11 That is, technique transforms the social fabric to meet its needs. Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in the social transformation that caused the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the very designation "First," "Second" etc. suggests that the degree of technical sophistication contributes to a nation's international standing, self identity, and place of importance.

 Ellul believes that technology is autonomous; it is a law unto itself.12 It is self-augmenting, self-replicating, and beyond human control.13 Technology reinforces itself. Robots replace workers on assembly lines. Technique, argues Ellul, is self-directing. Technique directs reality. Everything must be made to conform to its dictates. The life that surrounds our automobiles is a good example. Traffic lights direct our pathways. Congestion crowds our highways. And "gridlock," or technique that chokes movement, is the result. There is a terrible irony to the word "auto-mobile," or self mobility. There is precious little freedom or mobility left on our roadways because of the automobile.14

p. 102

Technique is a monism, that is, a universal force. It is one all-embracing power ecumenically uniting what appear to be divergent ideologies. Furthermore, technique is monistic in the sense that it acts as a blind force reigning alone in the world in a manner that appears to be more clear-sighted than human reason.15

I must note a profoundly demonic irony at this point. Since the Enlightenment, much of western civilization has confessed itself to be autonomous. We have defined ourselves as people who are free. We invent, therefore, automobiles to enhance our self mobility. Having become widespread, our "mobility" degenerates into death and gridlock. That is, we are forced to surrender our freedom to our vehicles of mobility in auto-deaths, congestion, and related losses.


We invent, therefore, automobiles to enhance our self mobility. 
Having become widespread, our "mobility" degenerates into death and gridlock.


As I have said, humanity has sought to secure our freedom by the rationalization and mechanization of nature. Ironically, we have robbed ourselves of our freedom and authority by projecting our alleged autonomy onto our machines, methods, and systems. While seeking to be free, we have become enslaved. While wrestling nature for our freedom, we have subjugated ourselves to our technique. Perhaps the optimist might call for a technical solution to this loss of freedom. Maybe a "fun-filled" vacation to Disneyland would help!

Ellul further claims that the microchip has not brought a resurrection of democracy. It has eroded our privacy, as our government and our credit card companies increasingly can access data of the most private sort.16 The "information society"ˇ saturated as it is with every form of verbal bombardmentˇ nevertheless lacks wisdom. This society, dripping with information, must define people as information or data processing systems.17 I will return to this theme of "the information society" later in this article when I review Ellul's most recent book on technology's influence on modern life.

Technological Determinism?

May we conclude from this discussion that Ellul is a technological determinist? I have believed so, because he argues so strongly and convincingly for technique's totalitarian effects. His views do not seem to allow any room for freedom in our lives as a consequence of technique. I have come to see, however, that this charge of determinism is superficial. This was made clear to me as I read Ellul's theological works, with their different presuppositions. In this section on ethics and theology we will listen to the other half of Ellul speak. This aspect is no less important than his sociological side, the facet of his work we have just covered. Taken together, the two concepts form the foundation of Ellul's thought.

I would argue, in agreement with D. J. Wenneman,18 that Ellul's essential "method" is dialectical in character. It may be remembered that in Marx's thought we find a dialectical method of interpreting history. Accordingly, two contradictory forces ˇ the revolutionary class-created thesis/antithesis ˇ form the dynamic of history. Ellul also makes use of a dialectical method of interpreting history, though his is not of an economic nature. Ellul's essential dialectic revolves around "two totalities": that is, two mutually exclusive, all-encompassing ways of thinking.19

From the beginning my thinking revolved chiefly around the contradiction between the evolution of the modern world and the Biblical content of revelation.20

This "evolution" Ellul speaks of is best portrayed by the thought of Karl Marx. Thus, methodological Marxism and Christianity are the two totality ethics that together and in contradiction form the basis of Ellul's thought.

 I realize that Christianity was a totality implying an ethic in all areas, and that Marxism too claimed to be a totality. I was sometimes torn between two extremes, and sometimes reconciled; but I absolutely refuse to abandon either one. I lived my entire intellectual life in this manner. It was thus that I was progressively lead to develop a mode of dialectical thinking which I constantly made my foundation.21

The contradiction between methodological Marxism and Christianity may be expressed as follows. Marxism is materialistic, dialectical, prone to determinism, and holds autonomy as an important human virtue. On the other hand, Christianity incorporates the goodness of the material world into a more holistic picture, is more decentralized, less myopic, and is heteronomous in nature.

p. 103

Ellul makes no attempt to synthesize these two contradictory ethics. Indeed, to do so, say in the form of a "Christian" world view, would be to create an ideology or another totalitarian method of control. Contradiction is a must. Contradiction produces tension. Tension is necessary because it produces action, an action that addresses technique's problem. We have the opportunity to address this tension because ˇand this is keyˇwe are capable of responsible free decision. It is an existential, authentic human encounter with technical reality that necessitates a free decision.

What does all of this philosophy have to do with technique?

It is by developing this dialectic that Ellul is able to carry out his task of relocating humankind within the modern technological universe. What is lacking in such a universe is precisely that openness that allows for the historical development of the free subject. For technique, in Ellul's view, represents a closed world. Its development is completely mechanical. Its results are completely predictable. Ellul's dialectic itself introduces a certain negativity and thus unpredictability into this technical system. It represents a negation of technique.22

The last phrase, "negation of technique," is the signal for yet another contour of Ellul's basic dialectic. Ellul's system of thought fundamentally consists of technical necessity on one hand, and the possibilities of human freedom on the other hand, freedom being an absolutely essential condition for human existence.23 Ellul sees the human spirit, longing to be free, arising like an unstoppable force against the immovable object of the technological necessity.


Ellul's system of thought fundamentally consists of 
technical necessity on one hand, and the possibilities of human freedom 
on the other hand, freedom being an absolutely essential condition 
for human existence.


Ellul believes the gospel, the truth of Christian revelation, must confront the known sociological world that is dominated by technique. The gospel that confronts the sociological world dominated by technique is an alien truth to this world, but is capable in some unfathomable way of contradicting the way of servitude. This way of contradiction, however, is rarely if ever realized in human history.

Thus, there exists a profound dialectic in Ellul's thought: the existential, theological need to be free is pitted against the sociological, technological necessity of a technological society.

A second dialectic also exists. The sociological side of Ellul views the world through the glasses of empirical, evolutionary reality. Accordingly, the visible, verifiable, measurable way of seeing reality comes to the foreground. On the other hand, Ellul also views reality as a theologian. Faith, the grip of Divine revelation, extra-material reality are the dominant presuppositions to this way of thinking. Taken together, though never synthesized, the principles of empirical vs. transcendent reality form the second dialectic in Ellul's thought. Faith vs. empirical seeing, evolution vs. unfolding, verifiability vs. faith in the unseen, and sociological facts vs. theological beliefs form the second dialectic in Ellul's thought. Again, no synthesis is allowed.

Ellul's Theology

Talk of transcendent reality naturally leads us to a discussion of Ellul's theology, the core notion of which is freedom. I will return to Ellul's notion of freedom as a necessary antidote to technological necessity shortly. As I do, we will probe more deeply into the origins of Ellul's theological beliefs, and find the forces capable of lifting Ellul's perspective from the depths of technological determinism.

Ellul believes there is no activity around which all of life should revolve; there is no absolute. Everything and everyone is dependent or contingent upon God. Therefore, it is not possible for humans to absolutize or make a universal truth out of anything or any process.24 Thus, Ellul says in "faith" that technique cannot be absolutized. Faith addresses God with the full confidence that evil is not sovereign, is not absolute. Belief, on the other hand, represents confidence or trust in something or someone other than God. We believe the world is not flat because we have been told it by those whom we trust. Belief is concerned, moreover, with "religion." "Religion binds people together and binds them as a group to their god."25 Reason, science, technique or money can be deified. Belief is thus false faith, according to Ellul.

It follows that Ellul would resist technique as evil with much the same vigor that a prophet would resist evil. Thus, "progress has become a key term in modern religion,"26 a religion supported by the belief in human reason and its power to dominate nature in the name of freedom. This religion does not lead to freedom, claims Ellul. It leads to bondage and oppression, a loss of personhood. Belief always tries to construct something to trust in ˇ some force it believes to be a god.

P. 104


In short, Ellul is a pessimist when he contemplates 
what he sees that technique has contributed to the human condition, 
and what it will contribute in the future.


Ellul places himself at odds with the technological optimists. They seek their earthly salvation, or fulfillment, in technique; Ellul sees demonic servitude. The optimists sound their praise for technical progress; Ellul sounds the lament of the prophet for the captivity of humanity to technique. They celebrate reason, autonomy, and progress; Ellul mourns because of this counterfeit trinity. The optimists believe that humanity will significantly reduce, if not eradicate, life's perplexing problems by technique; Ellul believes the destruction brought on by technique greatly exceeds its goodness. In short, Ellul is a pessimist when he contemplates what he sees that technique has contributed to the human condition, and what it will contribute in the future.

Ellul argues for the meaningfulness of life, as a Christian would. Technique has not made life absurd. Mindless consumption, the nuclear arms race, or suburban shopping malls ˇ all particular manifestations of technique ˇ are in his view absurd. But these particular absurdities do not constitute the essence of a meaningful life. Life is not oriented to, nor does it find its significance in, technique. Life is given meaning by God, which technique cannot altogether eradicate.

Upon what basis does Ellul establish his view that life has meaning? The answer to this question is crucial, as it represents the core of Ellul's theology.

I myself have been gripped by the unique and irreplaceable character of the word, but for very different reasons: because God created the world, because he has revealed himself uniquely by His word, because the incarnate Word is the Word of the eternal God, because the God in whom I believe is Word ... there is order and truth in reality.27

Though technique does overpower us on the human level, God's word is not subject to this domination. God's word is free to address us because it is a transcendent word. This word "above all earthly powers" (to use Luther's famous phrase) speaks to us and for us, and thus resists the demonic powers of technique. When God addresses us in his word, supremely seen in Jesus Christ, we find the clarity of mind and will to truly "see" reality as it is. The consequence of this vision is the power to act freely and responsibly. Thus, "enlightened" by God's word, Ellul can understand the difference between, for example, the relative verbiage of computers and the clarity brought by God's word. Thus,

Computers can understand human phrases relating to acts and limited objectifiable concepts. They can give information and obey orders. But they plainly have nothing whatever to do with word or speech.28


Ellul roots his understanding of the dialectical way of 
thinkingˇagain, central to his thoughtˇin his faith in God. 
Dialectical contradictions are inherent in reality, 
just as God's word is basic to reality.


Ellul roots his understanding of the dialectical way of thinkingˇagain, central to his thoughtˇin his faith in God. Dialectical contradictions are inherent in reality, just as God's word is basic to reality. The term "word of God" can signal a call to "dialogue," but also to contradiction or to distance. The word of God ˇ our grace ˇ contradicts our sin, or technique. Ellul wants us to "dialogue" with God's word because of our sin. We are called to dialogue ˇ to regain true communication ˇ in the midst of the computer age because of the idolatry of technique. We are inclined by our sinful nature to idolatry ˇ to making ultimate that which is finite in the creation. Thus, reality is inclined to manifest a two-sidedness, a yes and a no, a positive and a negative, grace and sin. The positive and the negative, sin and salvation, do coexist; they do not rule each other out. Ellul confesses that each force is essential for the other's continued existence. Thus, the evil of technique is necessary for the good of redemption.

P. 105

 Negativity is essential, for if the positive remains alone, it is unchanged, stable and inert. A positive element, for example, an unchallenged society, a force without counterforce ... is enclosed within the permanent repetition of its own image.29

Ellul sees this dialectical way of thinking manifest in the biblical record. 

The root of Ellul's pessimism can be located in his dialectics.

I might say that it is a dialectical attitude that lead us to consider that we are impotent in relation to structures and necessities but that we ought to attempt what can be attempted. The same attitude causes us to affirm constantly that as an expression of determinism and as an exclusion of freedom, society must be unceasingly attacked, and yet that all our efforts will tend to maintain this society ....30

The "structures and necessities" refer generally to sin and specifically to technique. And while this statement taken alone may lead one to conclude that Ellul is a technological determinist, the rest of Ellul's work speaks differently. Ellul speaks in the next chapter of the same book of "harmony," of a "correspondence," a joy, a simultaneity of occurrences, a fullness of being that surely contradicts the bleak, myopic picture painted of the technological society. Thus, in some sense, salvation ˇ harmony, correspondence, joy, simultaneity, a fullness ˇ of life's many activites is thought to occur.


Ellul speaks in the next chapter of the same book of "harmony," 
of a "correspondence," a joy, a simultaneity of occurrences, 
a fullness of being that surely contradicts the bleak, myopic picture 
painted of the technological society.


We must not be confused at this point. After having set before us the overwhelming evil of technique, Ellul confronts us with the all-encompassing possibility of redemptive harmony. Taken together, these two contradictory ideas form a dialectic, a dialogue between contradictory statements, the purpose of which is to move us to action, to resistance to evil, to confrontation with technique.

Nevertheless, it is crucial in understanding Ellul's dialectic to see that while technique actually rules history, harmony represents our hope for (not in) history. Ellul's lack of specific examples of harmony leads to confusion and uncertainity as to what he is proposing. "Let us return to the earth and try to make it humane, livable, and harmonious. This is our real business .... Let us rediscover the earth in joy."31 We are asked to return to the earth ˇ the place of the domination of technique ˇ but find there no literal place of freedom or a program of action.

We must further clarify Ellul's notion of freedom. We may thus far conclude that Ellul minimizes the human ability to resist evil. Consequently, we can experience little or no freedom because technique dominates history. The question continues to haunt us: is Ellul a historical determinist, or is he not?

Ellul's dialectics demand that as much attention be given to the notion of freedom as has been given to technical necessity. This is a difficult task, because Ellul has said technique is a universal, monistic, ecumenical or global, and self-augmenting force. Therefore, the freedom he is about to define must be equally fundamental to human existence, as it must bear the enormous burden of being a counterweight to technical necessity. "Freedom is the ethical aspect of hope. An ethic of freedom can be found only in hope and can only try to express hope."32 Freedom does not spring out of hope by a kind of necessity. Freedom is the real and authentic possibility of choosing one's destiny. Freedom is created by God for humanity in humanity (or in Jesus Christ). Hope is the response of man to God's love and grace; while freedom is the response of God to man's hope. Freedom and hope are absolutely essential characteristics of humanness.


That is, God's glory, honor, might, and freedom exceeds  
and originates our reality, included in which is the enslavement of technique.


It is central to Ellul's thinking that God be the author of freedom. God's existence is said to be transcendent to that of our own. That is, his glory, honor, might, and freedom exceeds and originates our reality, included in which is the enslavement of technique. Ellul finds in the transcendent God the only source of freedom sufficient to rescue us from the gulag of technique. Since history is bound by technique, only a God who stands above and beyond history, who is not tainted by technique, can give us the hope of freedom. Only God can give humanity the possibility of living out hope in a practical way in daily life, claims Ellul.

P. 106

While God's existence is transcendent to that of our own, his33 relationship to us is not. God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Christ, though fully God, is fully human as well. Christ enters into our world as a fully immanent link between humanity and God. It is the immanent link that forms the basis for the possibility of freedom from the vice-grip of technique. ".... Destiny has been lifted by the act of Jesus Christ." After him "there is no more ineluctable necessity."34 This "act of Jesus Christ" that Ellul is referring to is the destruction of all oppressive powers by the kingdom or the rule of God.

Freedom means the liberation from technique's domination. Because Jesus Christ is free from sin and death and because he is in us by his Spirit, we have the hope of freedom. This freedom releases us from alienation and reconciles us to all of life's vital and holistic forces. Freedom, more specifically, means that we are no longer possessed by anything external to ourselves. Money, sex, fame, security, and above all, technique, no longer rob us of our freedom. I am no longer "Homo faber" (as Marx said) or an "information processing system" (as some modern computer experts say). I am a free human being: vital, alive, complex in being, and reconciled to myself and to the world around me in Christ.


Because Jesus Christ is free from sin and death and 
because he is in us by his Spirit, we have the hope of freedom.
This freedom releases us from alienation and 
reconciles us to all of life's vital and holistic forces.


Freedom and hope offered in Christ do not exist only for our personal lives, however important that may be. Rather, freedom is extended to the entire world. It represents a hope that we can have the possibility of an authentic future instead of one determined by the dialectics of history.35 Thus, Ellul does not envision the dialectical way of being as eternal. Dialecticism is the necessary accommodation to the evil of this world. We are being led, he continues, now speaking as a theologian, to a world that will become a heavenly Jerusalem,36 a world freed from evil and dialecticism.

Ellul's emphasis is not oriented totally to another world. He sees that this world is also important. However, it is critical to note that when we press him for concrete details as to how his view of freedom can positively affect history, Ellul says there can be no Christian factory or a Christian philosophy, no concrete alternative. That is, no historical event or project may be labeled Christian because to do so would be a supreme act of arrogance. Whenever the Church has tried to identify some project like the Crusades as Christian, it has only served to enhance an ideology of oppression, claims Ellul.


Just as the reader begins to believe life is socially determined, 
Ellul reasserts the need for freedom.


Ellul, the social critic, can not speak of freedom for too long. He must return to the theme of "determinations." There are social forces at work that oppose our need for freedom. Economic alienation, or class hostilities, is the first determinant. Second on Ellul's list are sociological determants. Urban environment, organizational techniques, mass media's manipulations, and the expansion of the state are among the social determinants. Indeed, the modern state has eroded the freedoms of democracy by its manipulation of voter preferences. However, just as the reader begins to believe life is socially determined, Ellul reasserts the need for freedom.37

Does freedom originate with God? What meaning can it possibly have in the historical world of necessity or determinations?

Freedom has meaning only in relation to an authentic necessity. Freedom is fate overcome, an obstacle surmounted, a limit passed, a sacred sphere secularized .... Freedom loosens up tightly regulated mechanism ....38

Freedom/necessity: the Scylla and Charybdis of modern existence? Indeed, are the terms hope, freedom, and heavenly Jerusalem historically relevant? Perhaps we will discern a change of tone in Ellul's more recent critique of technique. Has he softened his critique of technique? We shall let him speak:

My warning today is the same as 1954, when I wanted to alert people to the future potential of technique and to the risks entailed by its growth so that they might be able to react and to master it, lest otherwise it escapes their control.39

P. 107

As was true in the Technological Society, first published in English in 1964, the master critic of technique wants to expose the deception, overconfidence, the misleading nature of modern technique. The modern technological bluff consists in rearranging everything in terms of technical progress. Politicians manipulate media images to create the illusion that your cause is their cause. The media showers us with pseudo-images, trying to convince us that this, that, or the other product will fulfill our deepest needs. The economy is manipulated like an overstuffed chicken so that it can produce the kind of economic growth we desire. All of these particular methods of manipulation (and many more besides) have heightened the mesmerizing narcotic of modern technique.

Ellul continues. Prior to 1950 we lived by the imperialistic metaphor of the Industrial Revolution. Starting in the middle of the eighteenth century, man, machine, nature, and nurture40 were all coordinated into an efficient productive system of wealth production, the affluent products of technique.


The information revolution has produced the new imperial metaphor 
of the information society. Information is our new environment.


Today the technical metaphor has changed, but the oppression has not. The information revolution has produced the new imperial metaphor of the information society. Information is our new environment. We awaken in the mornings to our clock radio. We listen for the weather and traffic conditions (the latter often oppressive, especially in larger cities) on our car radio. We then move to work where a computer, a fax machine, and mail inundate us with more information. We return home to our television sets sometimes to find a dozen or so channels flooding us with information. Finally, we may close our day by reading a book. Ellul, therefore, argues that we live in an information-soaked society, a society that, nevertheless, is lacking in wisdom and ethical sensitivity. Thus:

 I refer to the fact that technique is our environment, the new "nature" in which we live, the dominant factor, the system. I need not elaborate on its features: autonomy, unity, universality, totality, automation, causal progression, and the absence of finality.41

And so the prophet sounds the same warning today that he did over thirty years ago.

Ellul carries the battle to the heart of technological optimism. He critiques Julian Simon's notion of linear progress. He calls Simon's thesis "absurd." Simon believes the economic market to be a place of pure and perfect competition where supply and demand will automatically balance and will consequently produce optimal social conditions. Workers, technical innovations, and capital sources will combine to eliminate all long-run (hence linear) concerns, concerns running the gamut from food supplies to energy "needs." This is Simon's argument. Even if optimal resources were to be allocated, and Ellul doubts they will, the resulting market structure that regulates this "brave new world" would be totalitarian in nature. People caught in this omnivorous economic organism would become one undifferentiated resource passively waiting market manipulation and exploitation.42 Indeed, this has been the legacy western capitalistic imperialism has left the world.

Second, Ellul argues that Simon's facile optimism knows no social limits or ethical norms beyond economic growth.

 The optimism of this economist rests, then, on an absolute belief in unlimited progress. Whenever a difficulty arises, "technical progress will deal with it." We have here an absolute form of the technological bluff.43

Economic progress, under these conditions of optimal economic growth, becomes social regress ˇ social retardation ˇ according to Ellul. The different aspects of society, like education, government, and the natural environment, loose their integrity to the god of technique, so the prophet argues. And with that note, Ellul rests his caseˇthe case for our defense.

Pessimism Continued: Neo-Marxism

I do not want to give the impression that Ellul's work is the only one that is pessimistic about technology's place in our lives. In fact, I want to turn to the Marxist school of thought to show additional strains of pessimism.44 I have noted that Marx was optimistic about the future of technology. This optimism is not shared by one of the chief modern disciples of Marx.

P. 108

JŞrgen Habermas stands as one of the luminaries in neo-Marxist thought. His book Technik und Wissenschaft als "Ideologie," or Technology and Science as "Ideology," is his major work on the subject of technology's effect upon modern society. Unlike Marx, Habermas does not envision the workers taking control of technology, removing the alienation that exists between themselves and the works of their hands, and realizing a bounty of goodness. Rather, "the liberating power of technologyˇthe instrumentalization of thingsˇis perverted into a fetter of liberation: it becomes the instrumentalization of man."45 Modern technology has chained or bound modern humanity to instrumental reason. Humans have become things, or parts of the production process. This has certainly become true for the worker Marx wanted to liberate. The worker has lost his freedom, and self-determination to technique. The modern assembly line testifies to this fact. Since the Industrial Revolution humans have been forced to attune their efforts to the dictates of the assembly lineˇwhen they were employed. Today robotics, the branch of technology that has mechanized and routinized human labor, has provided mechanical replacements for many assembly-line workers.46 Nowhere is this more apparent than in Detroit, the former capital of assembly-line labor.

It is noteworthy that a neo-Marxist like Habermas would use the word ideology to refer to technology. Marx argued that the capitalistic ideology dominated society and its agenda. Technology, now co-opted by the capitalist, has become the modern origin of human oppression.


Habermas believes that ... science and technology have become 
the embodiment of an ideological tool of oppression.


Habermas takes a different tack from Marx's state dominated ideology to alleviate oppression. Habermas believes the state has increasingly intervened in society to assure economic progress. The state attempts economic progress by co-opting science and technology, and then by using them for economic ends. The net result is that science and technology have become the embodiment of an ideological tool of oppression. While the optimistic Marx believed a state-owned technology would bring Utopia, the pessimistic Habermas believes the modern state- controlled technology only serves to oppress us. Thus, Habermas will have nothing to do with state domination.

Habermas believes that technology and science dominate or oppress people in the name of "progress." This "unfreedom" appears neither irrational nor totalitarian, but appears in the guise of leisure, wealth, and increased status.47 This statement is more true now than when Habermas wrote it. Leading journals in science and technology are calling for increased federal involvement in science and technology (and the United States federal government is listening). In fact, some are noting the emergence of "a U.S. 'technology policy,' in which the federal government helps develop and provide access to the technical knowledge on which the competitiveness of commercial enterprises depends."48


Habermas believes that technology and science dominate
 or oppress people in the name of "progress." This "unfreedom" 
appears neither irrational nor totalitarian, 
but appears in the guise of leisure, wealth, and increased status.


Habermas' view is that as politics surrenders its integrity to science and technology, the democratic will to resist technology's domination lessens. People are hypnotized and drugged by technology's effect. This narcotic effect is certainly true of our existence in front of the "tube." Televised political debates give the appearance that the electorate is viewing debates involving substantive issues vital to our democratic future. In actuality, we are witnessing the manipulation of images geared towards producing a desired political feeling. Substance has vanished. The legacy of Ronald Reagan's presidency is ample testimony to this reality. We are "hooked" on images.

An understanding of the religious importance or imperative of autonomy for optimism and pessimism is crucial for this article. First, the pessimists' notion of autonomy must be more thoroughly explored. Habermas maintains that we do not enjoy autonomy; we must settle for quasi-autonomy.49 We believe we are free to consume and enjoy leisure as we please. In fact, according to Habermas, "Industrially advanced societies seem to approach the model of behavior control...by reconstructing [our lives and natures] after the model of self-regulating systems of goal-oriented and adaptive behavior."50

P. 109

 Accordingly, "technocrats" ˇ technologically advanced experts ˇ are consulted for advice that can be used to manipulate behavior. Advertising executives know that technically choreographed sex sells blue jeans. So they place two young, well-endowed members of opposite sexes in a "bump and grind" position, and the message is clear: wear these jeans, engage in these actions and your sexual fantasies will come true. Thus, the ideology of technology determines our lives and corrupts our freedom. Marx failed to realize our enslavement by technique, claims Habermas.51


Habermas opposes the exclusive domination of what
 has been called instrumental rationality or reason used 
as a means to the end of manipulation and control.


Habermas opposes the exclusive domination of what has been called instrumental rationality or reason used as a means to the end of manipulation and control. He believes that communication and social mutuality must replace the reign of impersonal, manipulative instrumental reason. Only then will we become "dominion free," or freely emancipated individuals. Accordingly, communicating and interacting should not have control as their goal. Rather, individualization and choice would become the new virtues.

Habermas, like Marx, wants a revolution. Unlike Marx, however, Habermas' revolution does not involve alienated workers. Rather, circa 1969, Habermas appeals to students who have prospered because of economic and technological progress. These students, from high income, highly motivated families who are not themselves the product of authoritarian homes, must be enlisted for this "revolution." These students are the locus of his hope and salvation. These are the new social elite who, because of their privilege, can distance themselves from their peers and thus form the basis for protest. These elite will protest the technocratic, "achievement ideology" of western life. These students can turn to a thorough critique and renewal of technology because their wealth, status, and eventual success are assured. This grand vision is predicated upon the wealth and leisure that technique brings.52 Technological fruits make the critique of technology possible, claims Habermas.

The last point needs to be emphasized. Technological fruits give elite students the resources necessary to take distance from technique and thus form the basis of critique. Habermas does not seem to be a dire pessimist like Ellul. Instead, Habermas' pessimism seems to be moderated by his need for the fruits of technology. Without wealth, leisure, and status, students' protests may never occur. Therefore, I label Habermas a secular conflicted pessimist, though without Ellul's dialectical methodology. The conflict centers around his repudiation of state- controlled technology, which he portrays as wrong. On the other hand, Habermas' ideas need the fruits of technology to give students the resources necessary to critique technology.

Pessimism Continued: A Representative Christian Theologian

There is yet another form of pessimism: soft pessimism. The work of Nicholas Berdyaev in The Bourgeois Mind and Other Essays is an example of soft pessimism. This Christian thinker can speak of the powers of technique as "absolute," "the thing placed above man" and capable of bringing destruction to culture.53 He seems to give it an autonomous character when he says that,

Technique knows no symbols; it is realistic, reflects nothing, creates only new actualities...; it divorces man from nature and from others.54

Furthermore, God, according to Berdyaev, creates organisms that are interconnected with all else, whereas organizationsˇbureaucraciesˇare neither generated by or capable of life. Organizations grow and develop and create their own impositional character. "The supremacy of technique and the machine is primarily a transition from organic to organized life, from growth to construction."55

Such a situation can only produce "hopelessness," a "new cosmos of its own creation" with unforeseen consequences. The origin of this alarming condition is the alleged autonomy of the machine. This machine spells the ultimate end of man and nature. Thus,

the wireless will be carrying the sound of music and singing and the speech of the men that once lived; (nevertheless) nature will be conquered by technique and this new actuality will be a part of cosmic life. (Therefore), man himself will be no more, organic life will be no moreˇa terrible utopia!56

Nevertheless, Berdyaev does not seem to be a strident pessimist, as is Ellul. While noting technology's evilˇpotential or realˇhe does not absolutize human freedom. He ties the machine to human responsibility which in turn results in at least two consequences. If machines are not laws unto themselves, then they may be made to be subject to other laws and customs that could regulate their existence. If machines could be made to obey external laws they then can be made to be responsive to human demands. They can serve in a way that frees rather than enslaves us.

P. 110

 It is not machinery, which is merely man's creation and consequently irresponsible, that is to be blamed... it is unworthy to transfer responsibility from man to a machine. Man alone is to blame for the awful power that threatens him; it is not the machine which has despiritualized himˇhe did it himself.57

Berdyaev halts his slide into strident pessimism by linking the machine to human responsibility. Machines are not therefore autonomous but are tied to human responsibility. Man has the potential to control the machine.

Nevertheless, it is appropriate to speak of Berdyaev's pessimism because he uses such words and concepts as "absolute," "destruction of the culture," and "divorce from nature" when referring to technology's effect upon contemporary life.

Pessimism Discerned

We may be inclined to be cautious in accepting Ellul's or others' diagnosis of our technological situation. Given most people's inclination to moderation and aversion to extreme negativism, we may be inclined to accept only some of their thinking. Our experience of technology may not be so negative. We drive our cars and experience the freedom of mobility. We may have taken our children, or traveled ourselves to Disneyland, and not thought of it as the "ultimate idiocy." In everything from electricity to modern medical technology our lives seemed to have been bettered by technique, or at least they are not as doleful as the pessimists would have us believe.

This moderate position is, in my opinion, naive and simplistic. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always confessed that humanity58 was made in the image of God. The image involves many attributes, but must never to be cheapened by worshipping and servingˇglorifying and modelingˇany one aspect of the creation. When Frederick Taylor created a technique for workers to mimic the motions of the efficient machine, so that more economic rewards could be gained, our image was corrupted. That is, we have surrendered a measure of our dignity, complexity, worth, creativity, and responsibility to the dictates of the machine. Thus, I am inclined to agree with the pessimists when they say, "The machine demands that man assume its image; but man, created in the image and likeness of God, cannot become such an image, for to do so would be equivalent to his extermination."59 Machines are to serve humans, not humans the machine. When persons do surrender parts of their humanity to the machine, we must be alarmed.


Machines are to serve humans, not humans the machine. 
When persons do surrender parts of their humanity to the 
machine, we must be alarmed.


If we are not alarmed, we may legitimately begin to wonder if we haven't become duplicitous. Perhaps we attempt a weak, shallow, abstract critique of technique while lavishly enjoying its alleged benefits. Our lifestyles betray our real commitments.

Our pollution, gridlock, and even deaths that result from our steel chariots of "self mobility" speak more loudly to our commitment to technique than do our glib cliches of moderation. We as consumers are demanding light-weight, speedy, pollutant-emitting machines that provide the means for us to destroy lifeˇquickly or graduallyˇat an unconscionable rate. It is blasphemous because nothing in the creation should define our image and antirational because it threatens our freedom to "praise" technique.

Our dependence upon technocrats, or experts trained in the efficiency of a given technique, betrays our loss of sense of responsibility and community. Before I would consult a child psychologist for problems my wife and I may be experiencing with our children, I would exhaust the years of expertise in parenting gathered by friends and neighbors. After this, should I need to consult an "expert," then I would compare the advice of the expert with that of the seasoned parents we may know. We can and must trust our judgment as much as we trust the advice of experts. We surrender a portion of our responsibility to technocrats when we refuse to trust our own judgement. To the extent that we have surrendered our responsibility to technocrats and to the extent that pessimists resist this loss of self determination, the pessimists become prophets in their critique of "expertism."

P. 111

Technique is universal. Its effects circle and emasculate the globe. I witnessed these destructive effects when I visited the "Third World" country of Zambia, Africa. Between British colonial imperialism and capitalistic modernization, "primitive" Zambian traditionsˇbeautiful and attractive in their own right ˇ were being eroded. Our techniques have a mesmerizing effect. While in Zambia I spent one night watching state-controlled television. The first program I watched was an hour-long documentary, put together by Zambians, about the evils of capitalism and socialist-Marxism and the need for a uniquely Zambian economic ethic. Impressed by this statement, I wanted to sample more. The next program aired was a rerun of the American series "Miami Vice!"60 Technique is universal.

Technique has become a false idealogy and therefore a detriment to our lives. To view God, as the mechanist does, as a remote watchmaker unconcerned about the intimate affairs of his creation is to miss the personal, providential, parent-like care of God, a confession the Church has made from our beginning. To think the world subject to iron-clad laws of cause and effect, as Descartes61 did, is to rob us of our responsible freedom. Freedom cannot exist in a deterministic cause-and-effect universe. Whenever the place and importance of technique is exaggerated in our lives, idolatry occurs.


Technique has become a false idealogy and t
herefore a detriment to our lives. 
To view God, as the mechanist does, 
as a remote watchmaker unconcerned about the 
intimate affairs of his creation is to miss the personal, 
providential, parent-like care of God, a 
confession the Church has made from our beginning.


While I have agreed that a portion of the pessimists' critique is accurate, and while wanting to avoid a shallow moderation, must we say that the pessimist has most ably discerned the contemporary spirit of technique? I think not. Have you ever seen a machine build itself? Do machines repair themselves? When has a machine started itself? Do machines object to their or our evil or goodness? Machines and technique are not autonomous. The laws or principles for technique do not originate in machines, though in their implementation they can never be realized apart from machines. People make machines; operate machines; repair machines; critique and affirm the place of technique in our lives. In short, we are responsible for the principles by which techniques is developed; technique is not autonomous.


The pessimists attribute autonomy to technique
 because they believe the myth created by the optimistic secular technologist.


The pessimists attribute autonomy to technique because they believe the myth created by the optimistic secular technologist. Confessing ourselves to be law unto ourselves, we think we see this autonomy all around us because this article of faith is thought to be so crucial to our existence. This "seeing" of autonomy by the secularist is parallel to the "seeing" of theists. Just as the theist sees God's handiwork in the design of nature, the regularities of the universe, the miracle of birth, and the renewal brought about by salvation, so the pessimist "sees" autonomy or, to use Ellul's phrase, "freedom" in "self regulating," "self augmenting" technique. Freedom or exaggerated autonomy is thus raised to an exalted level, its dictates commanding technique which is thought to dominate life. It becomes the chief ethical imperative for escaping technique's all-encompassing world view.

Freedom or autonomy are thought to give life to technological necessity. But necessity demands an equally forceful counterpoint which Ellul calls "freedom." Should not the gulag of technique be dialectically opposed by the hope of freedom? Freedom, because of its exaggerated, autonomous character, is thought to be the only force sufficient to resist technological necessity. This dialectical contradiction between the Scylla of technological necessity and the Charybdis of human "freedom" originates in the secular and optimistic exultation of human autonomy, a definition Ellul ironically accepts.

The irony of Ellul adopting the optimistic secular notion of autonomy for his definition of freedom should be noted. By accepting the exaggerated notion of autonomy, or freedom, Ellul becomes deeply influenced by the secular optimistic technologist. Accordingly, instrumental or technical autonomous rationality seeks to remake the world after its own dictates. 

P. 112

No boundaries or external laws are permitted to interfere with the march of rationality. This march, or cultural progress, is inevitable and leads to total human betterment. In this optimistic view, freedom or autonomy is central. Accepting this notion of autonomy, Ellul has chosen the same secular, exaggerated core or religious starting point. Therefore, he does not bring a radical critique to technique as much as he does bring a deeply synthetic accommodation to the core virtue of modern technique, an accommodation Ellul wants to avoid. Believing the myth of autonomy, he can only warn us of technique's imposition. But he can not surgically remove the cancer of technique's imposition because he has not penetrated to the root melanoma: the pretension of autonomy. We pretendˇliterally make believeˇwe are autonomous, so the ideology will continue. But as I will argue in a moment, life is not at root autonomous.


Accepting this notion of autonomy, Ellul has chosen the same secular, 
exaggerated core or religious starting point. Therefore, he does not bring 
a radical critique to technique as much as he does bring a deeply synthetic 
accommodation to the core virtue of modern technique, 
An accommodation Ellul wants to avoid.


Ellul's dialectical methodology, I must respectfully argue, is not therefore Christian.62 Nor does it represent an effective antidote to modern technique. Its roots are in secularity; its tensions provide no ease from the burden of technique. God is the author of all truth. All truthˇlife's manifold imperativesˇis related solely to God. No one imperativeˇlike freedomˇcan receive substantive exaggeration without other areas of life becoming impoverished and/or exaggerated, again a condition Ellul wants to avoid. By exaggerating necessity, he creates an equally exaggerated need for freedom. At the same time, an equally exaggerated notion of autonomous freedom becomes the only accepted antidote to the determinations of necessity. Thus, Ellul must magnify the degree of human freedom to compensate for the titan of technical necessity. Furthermore, if one thus exaggerates freedom, any "necessity" becomes a threat to that freedom. But Ellul has not experienced technique as a threat in all cases. Technique has brought us a degree of freedom. The mass production and distribution of his books, as well as all of the techniques of writing (which Ellul has mastered so well), have made many of usˇincluding Ellulˇfreer from the grip of technique by raising our redemptive awareness of the problem. In short, by making evil a necessity, an unbeatable force, he must raise freedom to a level of unreformed, even secular proportions.


Neither freedom nor determinism, it seems to me, is the mark of humanness. 
Responsibility is.


Neither freedom nor determinism, it seems to me, is the mark of humanness. Responsibility is. I do respond to a variety of God-given norms in life, only one of which is the demands of technique. The realization of that choice depends upon a variety of factors like genes, social conditioning, class and gender interests, and above all, sin and salvation. That is, I respond to internal and to external stimuli or "laws," and that response characterizes my humanity. Sometimes the choice for all practical purposes is nil, as in the color of my eyes. Sometimes it is great, as in how and why I write this article. But response to God is always present. The recognition of the responsible character of life will go a long way to dispelling the spirit of pessimism. For if we view freedom as conditioned by God's providential and sovereign care of all of reality and consequently increase our sense of the ability to respond and decrease the sovereignty of sin, then we mitigate technological necessity precisely because we are able to respond, successfully and forcefully, to the challenge of modern technique and because God's sovereignty resists technique's alleged sovereignty. God created us to be stewards, care-takers of his creation, and we have the ability in Christ to manage all aspects of the creation responsibly.

If my charge of Ellul's accommodation to the secular core notion of autonomy is correct, then he does not have two all-encompassing religious ethics, Marxism and Christianity. Rather, his religious root commitment is to a secular notion of autonomy. Thus, his critique and alternative have become less effectual because the root idolatry of autonomy is not discerned. With his only commitment being to one principle ˇ autonomy ˇ I see no Christian "totality principle" at work at the root of his work.

P. 113

Moreover, this root notion of autonomy does not lead to dialecticism. It leads to an intellectually schizophrenic world view. Two "totality views," ipso facto, can not occupy the same life. This fact is especially true if life is confessed to be whole, as Ellul argues.63 Two mutually exclusive set of principles divide and do not unite the person. Autonomy versus heteronomy, sociology vs. theology, reason vs. revelation, freedom vs. necessity, alienation vs. reconciliation: this is methodological schizophrenia. Taken together an amalgam of both sides of the coin can not possibly form totality principles, for no set of principles together or separate are total in their command of life. Therefore, Ellul offers no holistic, comprehensive position from which to make a radical, integral critique of modern technique, and critique we must. His religious secular commitment to autonomy together with his dialectical method together form a schizoid and therefore not a holistic view.

Finally, as I have briefly argued, Ellul thinks of evil as absolute in the historical area and therefore leaves us without a historic hope of overcoming the real evil of technique. True, he speaks of hope, freedom, wholeness, the kingdom of God but never with concrete, historical examples. These lofty words are reserved for the transcendent, supra-historical realm. History is ruled by technique. His works are full of examples of why and how our everyday lives are tyrannized by technique. My critique of Ellul's attempted aggrandizement of historic evil first and foremost comes from the conviction that Ellul's own historic rhetoric will not allow evil to assume the place and significance he allots it. His own dialectical way of thinking calls for "freedom," "hope," "promise," and "joy." That this prophet stands for these virtues testifies to the reality that we do not live in a technological society. For at least Jacques Ellul, and many others, do not live for, unto, and because of technique, though our lives have becomes too permeated by technique.

The problems outlined in Ellul's work are characteristic to one degree or another of other facets of pessimism which I have outlined. Others, like Habermas, have similar flaws. The irony of Ellul's using technique to critique and free us from technique is parallel to Habermas using the fruits or the wealth of technique to create an activistic student class of revolutionaries who supposedly will autonomously throw off the "achievement mentality," the root of which is modern technology. The pessimist, in other words, has at the core of his thought a belief in the myth of autonomy which in its technological form is thought to signal damnation while in its humanistic form is thought to be the herald of salvation. What a dark, conflicted world indeed. Personally, I do not aspire to tension, dialectical thought, or contradictions. Wholeness, integrality, being grounded in Christ in the midst of ontological diversity seem to be virtues and a state that could provide for a more holistic and salvation-filled view of life.

ę1994

Notes

 

1 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. by John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage Book, 1964), p. xxii. Emphasis in original.

2This piece is part of a much larger work in progress that will attempt to develop a taxonomy for technological assessment. The work will argue that there are at least four fundamental positions that attempt to discern the meaning of technique and the place that technique should or should not occupy within a given culture. As I develop these four analyses I will discuss principles or starting points and laws that both give coherence to a stated position and also outline a world view that is prescriptive for technique's place within society. This project necessarily will be interdisciplinary in nature. I know of no work that has attempted such a taxonomy to date.

2For the moment, the reader should note that I have initially presented a brief summary of the positions. I will survey: facile optimism for technological optimism; calculating the tradeoffs between the positives and the negatives for the technological realists; and placing technique within life's constraints for the structuralists.

3Ellul, Technological Society, p. 14.

4Ellul, Technological Society, p. 143. While I appreciate Ellul's critique of the idolatry of technology, I do not affirm what seems to be his dualistic stance: sacred/secular, spiritual/temporal. Ellul's point, as we will soon see, is that technique has become a monism, or one universal all-encompassing force. Therefore, the notion of dualism seems contradictory.

5Formally speaking, ideology is that body of doctrine, myth and symbol of a social movement that has been put into practice by some cultural and/or political plan. See The Random House Dictionary of the English Language: College Edition, Laurence Urdang, Ed. (New York: Random House, 1968). For Ellul's treatment of technology as ideology, see his The Technological Bluff, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1990), pp. 172-188.

6See Kai Nielsen, "Technology as Ideology," in Research in Philosophy and Technology, (Greenwich, CT: J.A.I. Press, 1978), vol. 1, pp. 131-147. It is interesting to note, in this regard, how both Joseph Stalin and Henry Ford made use of Frederick Taylor's time and motion studies to boost production. See Klemm, History, pp. 325, 333-335.

7Ellul, Technological Bluff, p. 257 ff. Ellul, of course, views the modern consumption mania as the consequence of the saturation of the market with "productive technologies."

8Ellul's theological beliefs are much more complex than this segment on ideology suggests. For the moment it must be stated that in Ellul's view, from the side of history, God's absence from human history is occasioned by technology.

9Ellul, Technological Bluff, p. 257 ff. See note 7.

10Ellul, Technological Society, p. 307.

11See, for example, Richard S. Barnet and Ronald E. Muller, Global Reach: The Power of Multinational Corporations (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), pp. 162-172.

12Ellul, Technological Society, p. 134. See also Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1977), p. 16 ff.

13Ellul, Technological Society, pp. 56, 90.

14Ellul, Technological Bluff, p. 371 ff.

15Ellul, Technological Society, pp. 93-94.

16I received a "survey call" from a nationally known cable company one day while this paper was being drafted. A representative wanted to know, after he dispensed with some superficial questions, my opinion on the value of cable T.V. The person questioned me about everything from my salary level to my religious (used here in the traditional church sense) convictions. While I was answering questions, my wife told me to hang up because "you are being used." To which I whispered, "I am making a statement. Leave me alone." I finally had to shorten the discussion because I had to keep another commitment. I promised to be near the phone on Sunday, no less, when he would call again. Total elapsed time for this abbreviated survey: one hour and five minutes. Was I or was my wife correct? Where do you suppose this valuable information went?

17Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1950), pp. 22, 55 and passim.

18D. J. Wennemann, "An Interpretation of Jacques Ellul's Dialectical Method," in Broad and Narrow Interpretations of the Philosophy of Technology, vol. 7, ed. by Paul T. Durbin (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990), p. 181 ff.

19Ellul would not allow his ways of thinking to be called methods because this would involve him in a technique of thinking. See, Wennemann, "Dialectical," pp. 181-83. It is unfortunate, therefore, that professor Wennemann has chosen to describe Ellul's thought as involving a method.

20 Wennemann, "Ellul's Dialectical Method," p. 182, quoting Ellul, "Mirror of These Ten Years," in Christian Century, February 18, 1970, p. 200.

21Wennemann, "Ellul's Dialectical Method," p. 183, quoting William H. Vanderburg, ed., Perspectives on Our Age: Jacques Ellul Speaks on His Life and Works (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), p. 15. Wennemenn's entire note should be used for clarity on Ellul's "two totalities."

22Wennemann, "Ellul's Dialectical Method," p. 185.

23See Clifford G. Christians and Jay M. van Hook, eds., Jacques Ellul: Interpretive Essays (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1981), p. 296.

24Jacques Ellul, What I Believe, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Comp., 1989), p. 4.

25Ellul, What I Believe, p. 3.

26Ellul, What I Believe, p. 4.

27Ellul, What I Believe, p. 24.

28Ellul, What I Believe, p. 28.

29Ellul, What I Believe, p. 33.

30Ellul, What I Believe, p. 45.

31Ellul, What I Believe, p. 49.

32Jacques Ellul, The Ethics of Freedom, trans and ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Comp., 1976 [French original, 1973]), p. 12.

33Since God is transcendent, She transcends our pronouns. Furthermore, since He includes all people in his care, men and women, girls and boys are to be equally valued and respected. Hence, the pronoun choice is somewhat arbitrary for me.

34Ellul, Ethics of Freedom, p. 14. Emphasis added.

35Ellul, Ethics of Freedom, p. 16.

36Ellul, Ethics of Freedom, p. 16. Recently I travelled to the Netherlands to study and to lecture. While there I spent a delightful evening with noted reformed philosopher of technology Professor Egbert Schuurman. In this personal conversation, he told me that Ellul is now beginning to admit that the "New Jerusalem" may be more evident in history than he has been able to see. In fact, there may be a book from the pen of Ellul on this topic appearing in the not too distant future. Perhaps the Christian half of Ellul is beginning to gain ascendancy in his twilight years?

37Ellul, Ethics of Freedom, p. 34 ff. and passim.

38Ellul, Ethics of Freedom, p. 75.

39Ellul, Technological Bluff, p. xiii.

40For a thorough, well-documented book on how the Industrial Revolution overran "vulnerable" and "weak" educators, thereby taking control of public education, read Raymond E. Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962).

41Ellul, Technological Bluff, p. 15.

42For a mainline economist's critique of this optimistic notion of perfect competition and the reality of imperialism read, Douglas C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 131 ff., esp pp. 134-35.

43Ellul, Technological Bluff, p. 21.

44There are many writers who are pessimistic about technology's place in our lives. Their number seems to grow in the latter half of the twentieth century. My choices in this chapter are only meant to be introductory and illustrative. The experienced reader will want to consult a more thorough listing. See therefore, Professor Egbert Schuurman's notion of the "transcendentalists" or thinkers who see technology as a threat to human freedom in Technology and the Future: A Philosophical Challenge, trans. by Herbert D. Morton (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1980), pp. 51-176.

45JŞrgen Habermas, Technology and Science as "Ideology" (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 3rd ed., 1969), p. 7.

46Habermas, Technology, p. 53.

47Habermas, Technology, p. 53.

48Habermas, Technology, p. 80 and passim.

49Habermas, Technology, pp. 81 and 96.

50Habermas, Technology, p. 91.

51Habermas, Technology, p. 101 ff.

52Nicholas Berdyaev, "Man and Machine," in The Bourgeois Mind and Other Essays (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1934), pp. 203-204.

53Berdyaev, "Man and Machine," p. 204.

54Berdyaev, "Man and Machine," p. 205.

55Berdyaev, "Man and Machine," p. 210.

56Berdyaev, "Man and Machine," p. 212.

57Berdyaev, "Man and Machine," p. 212.

58Unfortunately, we have not always recognized that women were accorded the same status as that of men, that being the image of God.

59Berdyaev, "Man and Machine," p. 206.

60The television series "Miami Vice" aired in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. Set in the steamy confines of Miami, Florida, two vice copsˇCrocket and Tubbsˇfought the sale and distribution of a myriad of illegalities. What set these cops apart from most mortals I know was their exposure to technologically titillating lifestyles. Fast cars, expensive boats, gorgeous homes, mouth-watering food, and lavish sex (itself methodically choreographed) provided a technological milieu that many aspirants would find attractive. In comparison with this attraction, the Zambian moralizing about the evils of capitalism seems quixotic.

61This reference to Descartes is admittedly obscure. Please allow me simply to assert that Descartes' view of the relationship of universal laws to human freedom was one of irresistible cause to human necessity.

62Ellul's reformed Protestant tradition is close to that of my own. It is for that reason that I both respect his work and at the same time find it so troublesome.

63Ellul, What I Believe, p. 1.