Jacques Ellul Was Not Impressed With “Technical Humanism”

Forgive the rather long excerpt, but I think it’s worth reading. This is Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society discussing the attempt to humanize technology/technique.

It useful to consider Ellul’s perspective in light of the recent revival of a certain kind of tech humanism that seeks to mitigate what it takes to be the dehumanizing effects of digital technologies. This passage is also worth considering in light of the proliferation of devices and apps designed to gather data about everything from our steps to our sleep habits in order to help us optimize, maximize, manage, or otherwise finely calibrate ourselves. The calibration becomes necessary because the rhythms and patterns of the modern world, owing at least in part to its technological development, have indeed become unlivable. So now the same techno-economic forces present themselves as the solution to the problems they have generated.

The claims of the human being have thus come to assert themselves to a greater and greater degree in the development of techniques; this is known as “humanizing the techniques.” Man is not supposed to be merely a technical object, but a participant in a complicated movement. His fatigue, pleasures, nerves, and opinions are carefully taken into account. Attention is paid to his reactions to orders, his phobias, and his earnings. All this fills the uneasy with hope. From the moment man is taken seriously, it seems to them that they are witnessing the creation of a technical humanism.

If we seek the real reason, we hear over and over again that there is “something out of line” in the technical system, an insupportable state of affairs for a technician. A remedy must be found. What is out of line? According to the usual superficial analysis, it is man that is amiss. The technician thereupon tackles the problem as he would any other. He has a method which has hitherto enabled him to solve all difficulties, and he uses it here too. But he considers man only as an object of technique and only to the degree that man interferes with the proper function of the technique. Technique reveals its essential efficiency in discerning that man has a sentimental and moral life which can have great influence on his material behavior and in proposing to do something about such factors on the basis of its own ends. These factors are, for technique, human and subjective; but if means can be found to act upon them, to rationalize them and bring them into line, they need not be a technical drawback. Of course, man as such does not count.

When the technical problem is well in hand, the professional humanists look at the situation and dub it “humanist.” This procedure suits the literati, moralists, and philosophers who are concerned about the human situation. What is more natural than for philosophers to say: “See how we are concerned with Man?”; and for their literary admirers to echo: “At last, a humanism which is not confined to playing with ideas but which penetrates the facts!” Unfortunately, it is a historical fact that this shouting of humanism always comes after the technicians have intervened; for a true humanism, it ought to have occurred before. This is nothing more than the traditional psychological maneuver called rationalizing.

Since 1947 we have witnessed the same humanist rationalizing with respect to the earth itself. In the United States, for example, methods of large-scale agriculture had been savagely applied. The humanists became alarmed by this violation of the sacred soil, this lack of respect for nature; but the technical people troubled themselves not at all until a steady decline in agricultural productivity became apparent. Technical research discovered that the earth contains certain trace elements which become exhausted when the soil is mistreated. This discovery, made by Sir Albert Howard in his thorough investigation of Indian agriculture, led to the conclusion that animal and vegetable (“organic”) fertilizers were superior to any and all artificial fertilizers, and that it is essential not to exhaust the earth’s reserves. Up to now no one has succeeded in finding a way of replacing trace elements artificially. The technicians have recommended more care in the use of fertilizers and moderation in the utilization of machinery; in short. “respect” for the soil. And all nature lovers rejoice. But was any real respect for the earth involved here? Clearly not. The important thing was agricultural yield.

It might be objected: “Who cares what the real causes were if the result is respect for man or for nature? If technical excess brings us to wisdom, let us by all means develop techniques. If man must be effectively protected by a technique that understands him, we may at least rest assured that he will be better protected than he ever was by all his philosophies.” This is hocus-pocus. Today’s technique may respect man because it is in its interest and part of its normal course of development to do so. But we have no certainty that this will be so in the future. We could have a measure of certainty only if technique, by necessity and for deep and lasting reasons, subordinated its power in principle to the interests of man Otherwise, a complete reversal is always possible. Tomorrow it might be in technique’s interest to exploit man brutally, to mutilate and suppress him. We have, as of now, no guarantee whatsoever that this is not the road it will take. On the contrary, we see all around us at least as many signs of increasing contempt for man as of respect for him. Technique mixes the one with the other indiscriminately. The only law it follows is that of its own autonomous development. To me, therefore, it seems impossible to speak of a technical humanism.

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