Remembering Jacques Ellul

Writing in Comment magazine in 2012, David Gill considered the legacy of Jacques Ellul, the French sociologist and theologian best known for his searching critiques of modern technology, most notably in The Technological Society.

Gill summarizes Ellul’s diagnosis of modern society this way:

In The Technological Society and many subsequent works, Jacques Ellul detailed the emergence and the universal, global, intensive, and extensive dominance of la technique [his term for the all-encompassing nature of technology as artifact, system, and mode of thought] in our civilization. Technology affects every aspect of our lives and every part of the world. It is the defining characteristic of the general milieu in which we live and think. It is not just that technological tools and machines are everywhere, he says, but that technological rationality dominates our every thought and activity (political, religious, therapeutic, artistic, sexual, and otherwise).

Elsewhere, Ellul described the sacred as “the unimpeachable, inviolable order to which man himself submits and which he uses as a grid to decode a disorderly, incomprehensible, incoherent world that he might get his bearings in it and act in it.” This was, in his view, precisely the function technology had assumed in modern society. Technology, Ellul believed, is “not merely an instrument, a means. It is a criterion of good and evil. It gives meaning to life. It brings promise. It is a reason for acting and it demands a commitment.”

In keeping with technology’s sacred status, Ellul wrote, “All criticism of it brings down impassioned, outraged, and excessive reactions.” “Whenever anyone suggests that technology presents certain disadvantages,” he added, “people rush to its defense …. One can call everything in our society into question (including God), but not technology.”

Some have accused Ellul of describing a situation so dire that it was unavoidable and unredeemable. That was not quite the case. As Gill explains,

Ellul says we should “profane” and desacralize false gods and idols. Treat them as ordinary and profane, joke about them, ignore them, refuse to sing their praises or bow down to them, limit their presence and position in our life (and organization). Question them. There is a time to attack and mock a false or predatory god. To get free, we may need to taunt it, profane it, take its name in vain, commit sacrilege, and brashly break its commandments. Words must be accompanied by actions.

For more on the life and work of Ellul, including a discussion of the values embedded in technology, read the rest of Gill’s essay.