Ellul grounds the nurturing of the technological society, sketches the central figure "technique," and fills in some of the consequences are for the future. The image is unrelentingly bleak.
So complete an interpenetration of technology in society has been made that human society is divorced from the natural and social conditions it has adopted itself to for millennia. Technique is the Behemoth that swallows up everything that is not itself. "[T]oday every human initiative must use technical means to express itself" (420). What is technique? It is the conviction that there is one best way -- one most efficient way -- to do anything, in any field. "...What characterizes technical action within a particular activity is the search for greater efficiency...the one best means is, in fact, the technical means. It is the aggregate of these means that produces technical civilization" (20-21). The means for nurturing the technological society, as Ellul reviews the history of the West, are five conditions: 1) a long time for technical maturation 2) a population of sufficient size 3 a suitable economic milieu 4) a society which is malleable and open to the propagation of technique, and 5) a clear technological intention. Some societies had some of the necessary prerequisites, but none had the simultaneous existence of all five until eighteenth century England. (59-60). What, then, is the character of technique, and how does it express itself in economics, the state, and in human interactions?
Under the regime of technique, work becomes its own end, and the most efficient tool becomes global, erasing locality. Choice of tools is eliminated, erasing craftsmanship. This kind of technique spreads geometrically, augmenting itself as it proceeds. The essence of technique in science and research is for unity of action and thought: "since it was possible, it was necessary." (99) Technique explodes human mystery: "Technique worships nothing, respects nothing. It has a single role: to strip off externals, to bring everything to light, and by rational use to transform everything into means." (142) Technique is by nature a rationalizer, a monolith, a juggernaut.
Economics, via technique are aligned along the most efficient production
It doesn't matter whether society is organized along Marxist, socialist, fascist or capitalist lines: these are merely surface differences. Strong planning is common to all, and a technocracy of math develops. "Technique as a general phenomenon... always give rise to an aristocracy of technicians who guard secretes to which no outsider will have access. Decisions which have a serious basis take on the appearance of arbitrary and incomprehensible decrees....It is a grave illusion to believe that democratic control or decision-making can be reconciled with economic technique." (162) Although mass production might appear to support a "democratic" economics, only social needs are accounted for, and individual needs are slowly erased. Production is a fine wire mesh, tightening. "The more his needs are accounted for, the more he is integrated into the technical matrix." (224)
The combination of the State with technique is the least recognized and perhaps most important change of the 20th century. The "structures of the modern state and its organs of government are subordinate to the techniques dependent upon the state. If we were to consider in turn each of the indispensable services of the modern state, we would find that they are becoming more and more alike, regardless of the theories of government under which they operate." (271) Here the state resembles economics: irreversibly embroiled, focused on central planning for efficiency's sake. "The basic effect of state action on techniques is to co-ordinate the whole complex. The state possesses the power of unification, since it is the planning power par excellence in society....It has played this role with respect to techniques for a half a century by bringing hitherto unrelated techniques into contact with one another, for example, economic and propaganda techniques." (307) Finally, human techniques are those which enable us to bear the tensions and pressures of technical society. Man's feelings, thoughts and consciousness, even, become secondary. At work, his mental absence is called for as often as his presence (320). His obedience to time and to restricted motion, to living in a mass society, are required. His feelings at work, about work, about messages in the air and everywhere (propaganda), are summed up in the acquiescent smile. (427)
Ellul must have read Zamyatin's We: "A smile is the sign of an empty-headed
man." The Technological Society has a period feel, and yet it presents
the inexorability of technology with a fear and horror as fresh as it was
in the day it was written. It might also serve as an antidote to
a current business platitude, "do what you really love and you will be
well paid for it." The idea being, if you aren't well paid, you don't love
your job enough, or you haven't found your true "heart and soul" talent;
as soon as you do, someone will pay you for it. This platitude would
serve, for Ellul, as one of the more horrifying examples of spiritual cannibalism
through the technique of economics. Does Ellul see any way to mediate
the oppressive weight of technique? No. It is now the air we breathe.
Technique exists because it is technique. The Golden Age will be because
it will be.