All That Is Digitized Must Converge

“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.

The Point of Technical Convergence

The following passage is taken from one of the last chapters of Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society, originally published in 1954.

However, one important fact has escaped the notice of the technicians, the phenomenon of technical convergence …. Our interest here is the convergence on man of a plurality, not of techniques, but of systems or complexes of techniques. The result is an operational totalitarianism; no longer is any part of man free and independent of these techniques …. It is impossible to determine, by considering any human technique in isolation, whether its human object remains intact or not. The problem can be solved only by using the human being as a criterion, only by looking at this point of convergence of technical systems.


Our highly specialized technicians will have a vast number of problems to hurdle before they are in a position to put together the pieces of the puzzle. The technical operations involved do not appear to fit well together, and only by means of a new technique of organization will it be possible to unite the different pieces into a whole. When this has finally been accomplished, however, human techniques will develop very fast. As yet unrecognized potentialities for influencing the individual will appear. At the moment such possibilities are only dimly discerned in the penumbra of totalitarian regimes still in their infancy. It should not be forgotten, of course, that while our technicians are trying to synthesize the various techniques theoretically, a synthetic unity already exists and man is its object.

I submit that we can read this prophetically and find the fulfillment of the “new technique of organization” that will unleash “unrecognized potentialities for influencing the individual” in digital technology, perhaps even seeing in the smartphone the symbol of technical convergence. A whole assemblage of political, economic, psychological, and social techniques find in this digital device a focal point upon which to converge on the human being.

Jacques Ellul on Technique As An Obstacle To Ethics

The following excerpts are taken from “The Search for Ethics In a Technicist Society” (1983) by Jacques Ellul. In this essay, Ellul considers the challenges posed to traditional morality in a society dominated by technique.

James Fowler on what Ellul meant by technique: “Ellul’s issue was not with technological machines but with a society necessarily caught up in efficient methodological techniques. Technology, then, is but an expression and by-product of the underlying reliance on technique, on the proceduralization whereby everything is organized and managed to function most efficiently, and directed toward the most expedient end of the highest productivity.

In Ellul’s view, “The ethical problem, that is human behavior, can only be considered in relation to this system, not in relation to some particular technical object or other.” “If technique is a milieu and a system, ” he adds, “the ethical problem can only be posed in terms of this global operation. Behavior and particular choices no longer have much significance. What is required is thus a global change in our habits or values, the rediscovery of either an existential ethics or a new ontology.”

Emphasis in boldface below is mine.

On the call to subordinate means to ends:

“It is quite right to say that technique is only made of means, it is an ensemble of means (We shall return to this later), but only with the qualification that these means obey their own laws and are no longer subordinated to ends. Besides, one must distinguish ideal ends (values, for example), goals (national, for example), and the objectives (immediate objectives: a researcher who tries to solve some particular problem). Science and technique develop according to objectives, rarely and accidentally in relation to more general goals, and never for ethical or spiritual ideals. There is no relation between the proclamation of values (justice, freedom, etc.) and the orientation of technical development. Those who are concerned with values (theologians, philosophers, etc.) have no influence on the specialists of technique and cannot require, for example, that some aspect of current research or other means should be abandoned for the sake of some value.

On the difficulty of determining who exactly must act to subordinate technique to moral ends:

To adopt one of these first two ethical orientations is to argue that it is human beings who must create a good use for technique or impose ends on it, but always neglecting to specify which human beings. Is the “who” not important? Is technique able to be mastered by just any passer-by, every worker, some ordinary person? Is this person the politician? The public at large? The intellectual and technician? Some collectivity? Humanity as a whole? For the most part politicians cannot grasp technique, and each specialist can understand an infinitesimal portion of the technical universe, just as each citizen only makes use of an infinitesimal piece of the technical apparatus. How could such a person possibly modify the whole? As for the collectivity or some class (if they exist as specific entities) they are wholly ignorant of the problem of technique as a system. Finally, what might be called “Councils of the Wise” […] have often been set up only to demonstrate their own importance, just as have international commissions and international treaties [….] Who is supposed to impose ends or get hold of the technical apparatus? No one knows.

On the compromised position from which we try think ethically about technique:

At the same time, one should not forget the fact that human beings are themselves already modified by the technical phenomenon. When infants are born, the environment in which they find themselves is technique, which is a “given.” Their whole education is oriented toward adaptation to the conditions of technique (learning how to cross streets at traffic lights) and their instruction is destined to prepare them for entrance into some technical employment. Human beings are psychologically modified by consumption, by technical work, by news, by television, by leisure activities (currently, the proliferation of computer games), etc., all of which are techniques. In other words, it must not be forgotten that it is this very humanity which has been pre-adapted to and modified by technique that is supposed to master and reorient technique. It is obvious that this will not be able to be done with any independence.

On the pressure to adapt to technique:

Finally, one other ethical orientation in regard to technique is that of adaptation. And this can be added to the entire ideology of facts: technique is the ultimate Fact. Humanity must adapt to facts. What prevents technique from operating better is the whole stock of ideologies, feelings, principles, beliefs, etc. that people continue to carry around and which are derived from traditional situations. It is necessary (and this is the ethical choice!) to liquidate all such holdovers, and to lead humanity to a perfect operational adaptation that will bring about the greatest possible benefit from the technique. Adaptation becomes a moral criterion.


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.