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Notes from The Technological Bluff, 1990

by Jacques Ellul

Technology is hurrying us into a situation of catastrophe.

What automation did in the industrial world, computers are doing in the service world, namely eliminating low skilled jobs.

Knowledge gives us our place in society.

The astonishing cultural ignorance of the technocrats leads them into disastrous errors of judgement regarding human nature.

To see common people degraded has always been a wonderful pastime for aristocrats, and this is no less true of technical aristocrats or technocrats.

Technology enables society to change very rapidly. But we are unable to say exactly what our goal is or through what stages we shall pass.

No matter how it is used technology has, of itself, both positive and negative consequences.

Here are four propositions concerning technology:

1) All technological progress has a price.

2) The harmful effects of technology are inseparable from its beneficial effects.

3) At each stage in its development technology raises more and greater problems than it solves.

4) Technological progress has a great number of unforeseen effects.

Technology doesn’t know where it’s going. That’s why it’s unpredictable and why it produces in society a general unpredictability.

Are the labour saving devices created by technology an absolute gain? Economy in physical effort exacts a price in the form of all kinds of physiological, psychological, and sociological ill effects. Nervous tension offsets muscular relaxation.

To go back is unthinkable. We have to obey technology’s first law: if something can be done, it must be done.

Technology makes possible the production of all kinds of things. Consumer capitalism is dedicated to the proposition that production is good in itself, no matter what is produced. The net effect is the massive production of absurd, empty and useless items which are nevertheless utterly serious since we earn our living from them, and dedicate our leisure time to them.

The phenomenon of congestion is one of the unavoidable but undesirable consequences of technology. Each element of technology may be useful, but the totality crushes the individual and dislocates social life. The era of planetary exploration translates itself into increasing immobility at the practical level of daily life. For example the mass of knowledge required restricts us to specialized fields each with their own arcane skills and terminology.

Technological society leads to increasing numbers of people who cannot adapt to the inhuman rhythm of modern life with its emphasis on specialization. A class of people is growing up who are unexploitable because they are not worth employing even for the minimum wage. Technological progress makes whole categories of people useless without making it possible to support them with the wealth produced by the progress.

Economic growth, having become an end in itself, has become detached from improved general well-being, that is from the commonweal.

All technological progress has three kinds of effects: the desired, the foreseen, and the unforeseen.

In a growth economy economic well-being only exists if it continues to grow.

Faith placed in technology is misplaced faith. When you place your faith in a thing like technology you make that thing your master.

We may see a kind of state terrorism forcing people to become computer literate.

An excess of information causes disinformation by the flattening out of all information. It becomes impossible to pick out in the flow what is important and what is ephemeral.

Industry has to produce at all costs, no matter what risks it entails. The state, in its desire to protect economic productivity, soothes the public with assurances. The public is ignorant and impotent and finally accepts the little-known risks as the price they have to pay for the pleasures that consumer technology hands out to them.

It is “the presence of the absence” of a purpose in all conflicts that renders them the more violent. Even if those who watch television retain all that they see, they finally know nothing and understand nothing because there is neither the intellectual means nor the cultural means to give the information place or relation.

All true culture has integrated the economic life of its time, but it has not depended on it.

It is now generally admitted that science is not neutral, and even more so technology. As a system evolves it imposes its own logic.

The greater the power, the harder it is to master it.

Mastery is the ability to dispose at will one’s potential.

Up to about 1936 no one doubted that science was destined to ensure human happiness.

People in the West have a belief in the absolute power of science. This is now the central theme rather than truth or happiness.

I know that scholars and philosophers take a poor view of common sense. In learned studies that I have read it is plain that common sense is deliberately set aside, that it is never even taken into account. Now as I see it, if we reject common sense, we open the gate to nonsense, to absurdities and fantasies.

The philosophy of the absurd has penetrated much more deeply than we think and created a climate in society as a whole in which certain things can develop.

The philosophy of the absurd leads to nihilism since if nothing has meaning, then nothing has value.

Some terrorists (e.g., the Baader gang) were if fact intellectuals.

Absorption in technology leads to a shortage of time.

Having created the problem of unemployment advanced technology is hardly likely to solve it. Politicians and economists who believe in a radiant technological future are dreamers.

There can be no philosophy of technology because technology has nothing whatever to do with wisdom. On the contrary, it is often the expression of pride.

Matter, the real, is what my machines permit me to record.

Nils Bohr

If everything is possible then nothing is possible. Nothing is possible for the self because it is the object that is possible. Absolute power is impotence.

It is claimed that no distinction between natural and artificial needs can be upheld, and that after a period a need which is created by advertising but which becomes habitual is just as natural as those that are generally listed as such.

Politicians are always inclined to accept the conclusions of the technicians, the experts.

Imperial Chemical Industry has made much more money by financial transactions on international exchanges that it has from sales of its chemical products in all its factories. There is a joke about the Rotterdam oil market: “If there is a market at Rotterdam it is not a market, and if it is a market it is not at Rotterdam!” Cargoes change hands four or five times en route and tankers change their destinations, the result being what the trade knows as “paper barrels,” that is, profits with no corresponding barrels of oil. I will be told that speculation has always existed. I agree, but we still need to refer back to the important law that quantitative growth entails a qualitative leap. The billions of abstract dollars and the vast amount of equally abstract production entails such a leap. Money does not have to be “saved” any more because it is made to circulate indefinitely, in the abstract.

About 95 percent of the total $500 billion per month in international oil flow is due to purely financial operations. Only 5 percent corresponds to commercial operations.

Computer technology is leading economics into a world of greater and greater abstraction.

Technology does not allow harmonious economic development. Every big technological innovation calls into question whole sectors of traditional economic activity.

The media extols every gain in speed as a success, and the public accepts it as such. But experience shows that the more time we save, the less we have. The faster we go, the more harassed we are. I know that I will be told that we need to have all these means at our disposal and to go as fast as we can because modern life is harried. But modern life is harried because we have the telephone, the fax, the jet plane, etc. Without these devices it would be no more harried than it was a century ago when we could all walk at the same pace. “You are denying progress then?” Not at all; what I am denying is that this is progress.

Happiness now consists of meeting needs, assuring well-being, gaining wealth and culture and knowledge. It is not an inner state but an act of consumption. Above all, it is a response to needs.

All needs, it is said, are cultural, so that a supposedly artificial need, when absolutely anchored in a culture (like the need for a car), is just as pressing as a “natural” need.

Happiness is harder to achieve because of the acceleration of the production of new and different needs which become more intense as primary needs are met.

Television replaces the missing collective culture that was created by a living group. The automobile enables us to leave the city and drive the freeway believing that it is the country.

A gadget is a technically very complex instrument whose utility is totally out of proportion to the considerable investment in time and money it involves. In other words, it entails an application of advanced technology for almost zero utility in return. The gadget is now the main industrial product and an unlimited source of profit.

Technology produces more technology whether it makes sense or not, whether it is needed or not.

Gadgets are not useless. My point is that their value is small compared to the investment of intelligence, skill, money, and labour that goes into their creation.

The true usefulness of satellites is military.

Some vast technical enterprises serve only to advance scientific knowledge and nothing else. Scientific discoveries do not necessarily give rise to practical applications. Science often remains on the plane of knowledge. That is not a bad thing. But we should not try to justify the billions spent on the conquest of space by inventing uses that do not exist.

There is a mania for exploits, for technical success. There is also the need for prestige.

The space program is our first great collective gadget. The second is the computer.

Historically technology has gone along with centralization and the concentration of power. “Without automobiles, airplanes, and loudspeakers,” said Hitler in October 1935, “we could not have taken over Germany.” Totalitarianism goes hand in hand with modern gadgetry.

Modern gadgets speed up society and make it more fragile, but they do not truly better the individual lot.

People who are deluged by information become incapable of making decisions. An excess of information results in total paralysis of the decision-making process.

Qualitative imponderables that the computer cannot allow for enter into all political and economic issues.

An encyclopaedic knowledge of all possible choices provides no criterion for choice. Choice has nothing whatever to do with the examination of possibilities.

The proliferation of children who can reach the heights of computer proficiency brings to light a basic feature of the computer itself it is infantile.

The computer is indeed a gadget whose usefulness is infinitely less than technology’s cheer leaders would have us believe. Yet even though it is only a gadget, it can turn the world and humanity upside down and send us in the direction of nonsense.

The Concorde was a financial disaster from every standpoint. Technology had made possible the building of an extraordinary machine that was beyond our social and economic capacity. Taxpayers had to make up the loss incurred by each flight.

A new road does not respond to a demand but creates it.

The state is the prisoner of the technology that it thinks it directs.

If every worker produces more in the same time, there are only two solutions; either reduce personnel or reduce the hours of work.

The constant appearance of new technologies eliminates qualified workers who cannot readapt and acquire new professional skills. Proportionately there is more unskilled than skilled labour where there is automation.

Contrary to popular belief and uncontested dogma it is not countries that have devoted most money to research and development that have the highest rate of productivity.

Industry has become increasingly bureaucratic. In the U.S. there are 57 million white-collar workers for only 30 million blue-collar workers.

The computerization of our society is motivated by the same reason that motivated its industrialization. Not human well-being, but profit. All else is pretext and justification.

In the last resort there is no relation between profitability and scientific knowledge.

Technology is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Furthermore, by its own development it contributes to the diminishing of economic returns.

Technology increases the entropy of the economic system making economic phenomena more and more unstable and unpredictable.

Enthusiasm for computers is not based on the usefulness and efficiency of computers, but on the illusion they give of being intelligent. But real intelligence consists of efficient preoccupation with essentials.

Those who are most susceptible to propaganda and advertising are the intellectuals, while the hardest to reach and to budge are those who are rooted in traditions, whose ideas are fixed, and who live in a relatively stable environment.

Excess of information goes hand in hand with a culture of forgetting. It is not a case of informing ourselves but of being fed information. We cannot absorb this information and the result is a tendency to reject information in general the way most of the advertising mail is tossed in the wastepaper basket without being opened.

Television sells illusions, particularly the illusion of participation.

By and large the messages of television are not conceptual but subliminal. Television acts less by the creation of clear notions and definite opinions and more by enveloping us in a haze. There is less and less talk and more and more manipulation.

Television encourages us to live life vicariously. Once the habit is engrained the experience of empty time, which an earlier generation would have filled with conversation, relations with others, reflection or reading, becomes traumatic. Life will always appear empty to those who have no inner resources.

The true gods today are not economic but technical. To compensate themselves for losses of autonomy and individuality people deify the technical device. It is universal and spectacular; it defies my attempts to master it; it performs what once would have been called miracles; to a large extent it is incomprehensible. It is thus God.

Advertising that explains too much misses the mark. It has been found long ago that advertising must not be argumentative.

Where there is no doubt there is no intellectual life.

A great deal of television programming consists of hymns of praise to technology.

Man is obviously made for thinking.

Pascal

One of the main points of playing games is that they create a social bond. Games played with machines cease to be social cement and become a factor of dispersion. I’m convinced that the whole system of technical games, amusements and distractions is a greater threat to Western society than Americanism, the economic crisis, drugs, alcohol or resurgent racism.

Of all the fruits of technology the automobile alone is beyond criticism. Some people are opposed to television and some to the computer, but almost none to the car. But the car is not simply a useful device like an umbrella. It `motorizes’ society utterly changing it in the process. Much of the urban environment has been planned in such a way that it is no longer livable without cars.

Approximately one hour in five is worked in order to own and operate a car.

In official texts a future is presented in which four real possibilities of disaster are ignored: nuclear war, a Third World revolt, an exponential rise in unemployment, a general economic collapse.

Propaganda cannot succeed without the complicity of those at whom it is aimed.

It is not easy for human judgement to keep pace with human knowledge.

For more than a century we have been descending step by step the ladder of absolute necessity, of destiny, of fate.

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