Jacques Ellul On Adaptation of Human Beings to the Technical Milieu

Jacques Ellul coined the term Technique in an attempt to capture the true nature of contemporary Western society. Ellul was a French sociologist and critic of technology who was active throughout the mid to late twentieth century. He was a prolific writer but is best remembered as the author of The Technological Society. You can read an excellent introduction to his thought here.

Ellul defined Technique (la technique) as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” It was an expansive term meant to describe far more than what we ordinarily think of as technology, even when we use that term in the widest sense.

In a 1963 essay titled “The Technological Order,” Ellul referred to technique as “the new and specific milieu in which man is required to exist,” and he offered the six defining characteristics of this “new technical milieu”:

a. It is artificial;
b. It is autonomous with respect to values, ideas, and the state;
c. It is self-determining in a closed circle. Like nature, it is a closed organization which permits it to be self-determinative independently of all human intervention;
d. It grows according to a process which is causal but not directed to ends;
e. It is formed by an accumulation of means which have established primacy over ends;
f. All its parts are mutually implicated to such a degree that it is impossible to separate them or to settle any technical problem in isolation.

In the same essay, Ellul offers this dense elaboration of how Technique “comprises organizational and psychosociological techniques”:

It is useless to hope that the use of techniques of organization will succeed in compensating for the effects of techniques in general; or that the use of psycho-sociological techniques will assure mankind ascendancy over the technical phenomenon. In the former case we will doubtless succeed in averting certain technically induced crises, disorders, and serious social disequilibrations; but this will but confirm the fact that Technique constitutes a closed circle. In the latter case we will secure human psychic equilibrium in the technological milieu by avoiding the psychobiologic pathology resulting from the individual techniques taken singly and thereby attain a certain happiness. But these results will come about through the adaptation of human beings to the technical milieu. Psycho-sociological techniques result in the modification of men in order to render them happily subordinate to their new environment, and by no means imply any kind of human domination over Technique.”

That paragraph will bear re-reading and no small measure of unpacking, but here is the short version: Nudging is merely the calibration of the socio-biological machine into which we are being incorporated. Ditto life-hacking, mindfulness programs, and basically every app that offers to enhance your efficiency and productivity.

Ellul’s essay is included in Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Technology (1983), edited by Carl Mitcham and Robert Mackey.

4 thoughts on “Jacques Ellul On Adaptation of Human Beings to the Technical Milieu

  1. Michael: important here, I think, is Foucault’s argument in Discipline and Punish that the necessity of punishment indicates a flawed system: discipline is better than punishment because it prevents deviation from the norm — and best of all is a self-disciplining population. That is what La Technique makes possible.

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