“All phenomenon in our society are either an imitation of technique or a compensation for the impact of technique,” Jacques Ellul explains in an interview that appears in Perspectives On Our Age.
“People cannot be happy in a purely technical milieu,” he goes on to say. “They can no more live spontaneously in the technical milieu than the astronaut in the cosmos.”
The “technical milieu” is a phrase with a technical meaning. Ellul had earlier described how humanity has inhabited three distinct and successive milieus or environments: the natural, the social, and the technical. Characteristics or features of prior milieus are not altogether eradicated by the new milieu, but they are relegated to different status. Hence, in the technical milieu we still have to deal with nature and society, but they are profoundly mediated by the technical milieu.
It may be that people will adjust themselves to the “rigid, rational, and icy world that is the world of technique,” but as of yet, in the late 20th century, Ellul does not think that we have. “It was a tragic error of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to believe that people were originally rational beings and that all irrationality must be suppressed.” On the contrary, “Each person is a creature of passions, of flesh and blood, a creature of impulses and desires.”
Such a creature finds it impossible to be happy in a purely rational, technical milieu, consequently such a creature requires compensations. According to Ellul, “a very large number of factors characterizing the modern world are purely compensatory factors, making up for the impact of technique.” “We have no choice but to live in a world dominated by technique,” he explains, “but we are forced to find something providing satisfactions elsewhere and permitting us to live otherwise.”
The striking thing here is the degree to which, in my view, the current configuration of our technical milieu has absorbed what we might have classified as compensatory elements directly into its operation.
In other words, whereas we might imagine that the sorts of compensatory factors Ellul has in mind, the entertainment industry say, were more akin to release valves that relieve pressure so that the technical milieu can carry on with its real work, we now recognize that even our games and our putative diversions are constructed so as to fuel the system, chiefly by generating the data upon which the system feeds.
What I have in mind here is something not unlike what I’ve called the society of the disciplinary spectacle, a state of affairs that arises when the apparatus of surveillance and discipline converge with the apparatus of the spectacle.
In my initial post explaining the society of the disciplinary spectacle, I cited Ellul’s warning elsewhere about “the convergence on man of a plurality, not of techniques, but of systems or complexes of techniques.” “The result,” he warned, “is an operational totalitarianism; no longer is any part of man free and independent of these techniques.”
Ellul could not yet see how this convergence might develop, but, it seems to me, that we are now able to see that digital technology is the material base upon which such a convergence of systems of technique is sustained and that the smartphone may be its discreet point of convergence upon the human body.
From this point of view we might also recognize that our compensations, the variety of means we deploy to assert or indulge our humanity, are not merely a necessary by-product of the pressures of the technical milieu, they are now integral to its functioning.