Technique says: “People must become machines in order to be treated technically by the hundreds of techniques which converge on them …”
Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word
Technique, it might be argued, is author Jacques Ellul’s term for what we have called the kosmos. It is true that he frequently gives the word a narrower, more specialized meaning: “technology.” But far more often he uses it to denote the entire sweep and scope of “the system:” that artificial but all-inclusive complex of patterns, processes, ideas, and methodologies that has come to characterize the world in which we live and of which technology per se is but a particular material manifestation.[i]
Technique is not simply about the proliferation of machines. It can be more accurately described as a mechanistic attitude or a mechanical way of doing things. It’s the state of affairs that prevails when the machine becomes the model, the template, the paradigm for everything else. It’s the religion of Number, the philosophy of the calculable and measurable, a mindset that leaves no room for the intangible or the poetic. Its goal is absolute efficiency. Being entirely human in origin and design, it is therefore inherently anti-human in tendency and purport.
In his quirky utopian/dystopian novel Erewhon (“Nowhere” spelled backwards), Samuel Butler imagines a society so keenly sensitive to the dangers of technique that its leaders decide to destroy all the machines and abolish technological advancement altogether. The reason for this dramatic step is set forth in a statement found among the fictional nation’s historical annals:
I fear none of the existing machines: what I fear is the extraordinary rapidity with which they are becoming something very different to what they are at present. No class of beings have in any time past made so rapid a movement forward. Should not that movement be jealously watched, and checked while we can still check it?
(From Chapter XXIII, “The Book of Machines”)
More than a hundred years after the penning of Butler’s book these words have a more ominous ring about them than ever before. They find a striking echo in Neil Postman’s relatively recent observation that
The uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.
The irony is that in outlawing technology, the people of Erewhon do not succeed in escaping technique. On the contrary, the novel’s protagonist – a visitor from the “real” world – finds the governing structures of that society so oppressively systematic and mechanistic that he is ultimately forced to flee the country in an attempt to preserve his life, his sanity, and his very humanity. And therein lies the true moral of the tale.
That moral has to do with the broader implications of technique. For as it turns out, systems can dominate people even without the aid of machines. And when the point is reached where the requirements of efficiency trump the needs of the individual – when that which was once a useful tool becomes the undisputed master of its maker – then we may be sure that a perilous line has been crossed.
This is the dilemma we face today. Postman and Ellul predicted it. Nicholas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains) and Sherry Turkle (Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other) have, among others, documented it. We are all living with the fallout.
“The Sabbath was made for man,” said Jesus, addressing the technique-obsessed Pharisees, “and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). His dictum demonstrates that the dehumanizing threat of technique is bigger and runs deeper than the question of digital devices and the rapid rate at which they are “becoming something very different to what they are at present.” It reminds us that religion, too, can be a machine. So can governments, nations, corporations, organizations, professions, media, entertainment, sports, politics, fashion, finance, investment, advertising, marketing, and the hundred other slick, sly, and seductively pragmatic schemes of so-called civilization that whisper to us from behind the curtain, promising not only power and prestige but even a richer and more satisfying experience of God Himself.
There’s a reason certain academic disciplines have been labeled “Humanities.” When was the last time you heard a Presidential Commission or an Educational Task Force lamenting the fact that our kids are falling behind the rest of the world in their poetry, music, and painting scores? It’s unlikely you ever will. Not while technique rules the world.
But the Pilgrim diligently seeks another way.
[i] For more on this, see especially Ellul’s The Technological Society (French La Technique, 1954).