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Ellul and the techno-state

I’ve also been reading a bit of The Technological Society by Jaques Ellul. He’s good on presenting technology as an increasingly all-embracing system with its own demands. He tends though to view technological rationality as solely concerned with the ever-greater perfection of means. It seems to me that to explain what’s going on around us we need to think of technology as integrated with a supreme human end that’s purely formal but nonetheless real—preference satisfaction. It’s true that we’re only allowed to form and act on preferences that are consistent with the overall system, for example by their “tolerance,” but preferences do matter.

His tendency to treat the technological system of ever-more-perfect means as self-contained without regard to any formally higher goal seems related to the French love of paradox and absolute system, and to his view that liberalism and technological society are radically opposed instead of closely linked. He opposes “freedom” to technology and talks about the former as a lofty goal in the manner of old-fashioned liberals without explaining what it’s for. That makes no sense. Freedom is power more or less broadly distributed, and as in the case of power generally you can’t say what it is without specifying what it’s for. You can’t define the effective without defining the good. That’s why ideologies like liberalism or Naziism that put freedom or power first simply as such end in incoherence and self-destructiveness. He seemed to think that the technological society would become ever more comprehensively administered in all respects, and took the Soviet model much more seriously than it turns out he should have. Technology is what works, though, and the Soviet model didn’t work for absolutely fundamental reasons.

I may or may not continue with the book. He goes into a lot of factual and argumentative detail that doesn’t seem of much interest 53 years after the book was published and 43 years after it was translated. I may decide that getting the general gist is enough.

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