Leo Marx and Jacques Ellul on Technological Determinism

My post earlier today alluded to a long standing debate regarding the personal and social consequences of technology. It is usually described as a debate about technological determinism, a phrase that’s been thrown around in these pages often enough, usually to indicate that I don’t espouse the theory it names while I, at the same time, find its polar opposite likewise inadequate. While the poles of this spectrum — and it is a spectrum of opinion, not a binary opposition — may be clear enough, I thought it might be useful to take a brief look at a two individuals who have articulated these poles rather clearly and forcefully — American historian Leo Marx and the late French sociologist Jacques Ellul.

“Technology,” Leo Marx warned in a recent essay in Technology and Culture, is a hazardous concept. In his 2010 essay, Marx explored the history of “technology” as a concept arguing that it arose to fill a linguistic void created by the emergence, in the 19th century, of sociotechnical systems that could no longer be adequately described by the existing repertoire of terms that included “machinery,” “the mechanical arts,” “the useful arts,” “improvement,” and “invention.” Already, by the mid-19th century, such constructions seemed inadequate and even quaint. Marx consequently concludes that “technology” is one of those keywords, such as “culture” in Raymond Williams analysis, that reflexively index the historical situation in which they rose to prominence. It is not until the close of Marx’s essay, however, that we learn wherein the hazard lies.

In his view, the generality of the term “technology” which made it particularly serviceable in characterizing the emerging components of what Thomas P. Hughes has aptly called the human-built world, also rendered the term “peculiarly susceptible to reification.” The problem with reified phenomenon, Marx warns citing George Lukacs, is that it acquires “a ‘phantom-objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” This false aura of autonomy leads in turn to “hackneyed vignettes of technologically activated social change—pithy accounts of ‘the direction technology is taking us’ or ‘changing our lives.'” According to Marx, such accounts are not only misleading, they are also irresponsible. By investing “technology” with causal power, they distract us from “the human (especially socioeconomic and political) relations responsible for precipitating this social upheaval.” It is these relations, after all, that “largely determine who uses [technologies] and for what purposes.” And, it is the human use of technology that makes all the difference, because, as Marx puts it, “Technology, as such, makes nothing happen.”

It is finally a moral and political concern that Marx seeks to register. Speaking of “technology,” he writes:

“We have made it an all-purpose agent of change. As compared with other means of reaching our social goals, the technological has come to seem the most feasible, practical, and economically viable. It relieves the citizenry of onerous decision-making obligations and intensifies their gathering sense of political impotence. The popular belief in technology as a—if not the—primary force shaping the future is matched by our increasing reliance on instrumental standards of judgment, and a corresponding neglect of moral and political standards, in making judgments about the direction of society. To expose the hazards embodied in this pivotal concept is a vital responsibility of historians of technology.”

Altogether, Marx presents the reader with a compelling critique of technological determinism wrapped within an essay that is mostly engaged in the task of semantic archeology. One would be hard pressed to find a more strongly worded defense of human agency in relation to technology, and this is why it is useful to begin with Marx. In the debate between technological determinism and technological voluntarism, Marx compellingly and articulately represents the latter.

To find an equally provocative and rhetorically charged defense of the autonomy of technology we’ll turn to the writing of the late Jacques Ellul. In The Technological System, Ellul insisted on the autonomy of technology which he took to mean that

“… technology ultimately depends only on itself, it maps its own route, it is a prime and not a secondary factor, it must be regarded as an “organism” tending toward closure and self-determination: technology is an end in itself.”

When Marx laments “our increasing reliance on instrumental standards of judgment, and a corresponding neglect of moral and political standards, in making judgments about the direction of society,” we can safely imagine Ellul retorting that this is precisely the work of technology bending society to its own logic.

Ellul, like Marx, was also concerned with the moral and political consequences of his position, and it was at this point that he most vigorously pressed the case for the autonomy of technology. No doubt the state makes decisions about technology, but who, Ellul invites us to ask, are the ones making these decisions? Technicians in the thrall of the technological system. Moreover, Ellul believes that the technological system “does not endure any moral judgement.” Rather, “a moral proposition will not be deemed valid for our time if it cannot enter the technological system and be consistent with it.” Furthermore, according to Ellul, the technological system disrupts traditional morality only then to establish its own governing principles as a new ethic.

Ellul and Marx express two opposing views regarding the relationship between technology and human agency. Their positions stand in conveniently for the opposite poles of a spectrum of opinion. Despite his concerns with the rise of rhetoric which tends to attribute agency to “technology,” popular opinion may very well be on Marx’s side. An NRA style, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” approach seems to hold sway. A “technology made me do it” defense of action would likely garner little sympathy. There is, after all, something powerfully intuitive about the claim that ultimately it is individuals who make choices regarding the use of technology, and that such choices are not coerced. Yet, the rhetoric that attaches agency to technology cannot be wholly dismissed either. That it is so readily employed suggests that at some level it too attains a certain plausibility. It is not unusual to feel as if, against Thoreau’s advice, we are becoming tools of our tools.

And so it was in an effort to explore mediating possibilities that I wrote my earlier post, certainly not as a definitive resolution, but as one way of thinking about technology that seeks to escape the poles of the spectrum.

7 thoughts on “Leo Marx and Jacques Ellul on Technological Determinism

  1. As I recall, Marshall McLuhan himself said, “First we shape our tools, then our tools shape us.” Seems to me such a dialectical approach fits the situation more adequately than Marx or Ellul (though I do admire both).

  2. Dawkins’ concept of the selfish gene is metaphysically and philosophically dubious, at best, but as a means of popularizing the ideas of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, it has some merit, I suppose. I haven’t read Ellul or Leo Marx, but I’m sympathetic to both of their positions. I’m curious to know, though, if you know of anyone who has written about how technology, the Schopenhauerian Will (metaphysical voluntarism) and capitalism might be related. Any suggested readings?

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