The Technological Bluff

Thirty years later, Ellul still has plenty to say in The Technological Bluff, obviously because of the newer, high technologies of the computer chip and the laser beam. And he remains as negative as ever. The technological “bluff” is the implicit assumption in Western society the technological progress, if used rightly, is a good in itself, and the good will always outweigh less-welcome consequences. What has happened, Ellul contends, is that we have become slaves of “technique,” as he calls it, subservient to its survival at all costs. The idea that we can choose to rightly “use” technique is a myth. Technique, instead, uses us. This has become even more evident with the advent of an information explosion and the unbridled passion too everything in a faster way, regardless of whether or not we use our new information or the time we save profitably.

Much of what Ellul says appears almost to be a truism. Technology does not obviously create a good result. In fact, Ellul may be right that every technique has both good and bad ends. There is a strong undercurrent of belief in Western society that technology can solve every problem related to human well-being. Obviously, this is naive as it relates to the moral and spiritual aspects of human life. A general ethos does exist that trusts technology to do what communism, “the god that failed,” did not do. We in the West often live such thoroughly secularized lives because of our deeply ingrained belief, implicit as it may be, that technological progress will bring happiness. The responsibility of the religious communities is clear to speak against that which the Bible would call idol worship.

In addition, Ellul is perceptive in terms of the fruits of the newer, high technology. The very characteristics of the newer technologies can have dubious effects. He is right that a certain kind of loneliness is created by both the television and the computer despite all the rhetoric about the advent of the “global village.” Is it not true that such technologies allow and encourage lack of personal interaction with others, giving a pseudo-relationship that simply communicates information or entertainment but not the heart and soul encounter with a real human being?

Computers have made available to us an incredible amount of information, but are we any better able to discern which information is valuable and which is not? Ellul seems right when he argues that there is a technological temptation to value increased information and more efficient acquisition and travel in themselves. So what, he says, if we can get to Paris from New York by the Concorde in four instead of six hours? Did we spend those extra hours we saved writing a symphony, or in some other profitable endeavor? Probably not. Probably we would indulge ourselves in more modern “diversions,” whose evil Pascal recognized, which have now, with technology, become even more widespread and varied. We have become “overwhelmed by freedom,” Ellul claims.

Or have we? This last statement is worth pondering. Have we become “overwhelmed by freedom”? Granting the strength of his argument as discussed, one is struck by this statement as an indicator of a grave weakness in Ellul’s attitude towards technology. As he puts it,

“…when techniques make possible the production of all kinds of things, if we give people their freedom, it will be used to produce things that are absurd, empty, and useless.”

What could be more true? Individual freedom–political, social, economic, and religious–creates the potential for all sorts of inanities to be produced, from the “pet rocks” of the seventies to mud-wrestling contests of the nineties. But it also creates the possibility for humanity to produce new wealth and employment, use our artistic gifts, and freely respond to God in worship and service. It is disappointing to see Ellul’s inability to recognize this, as he has shown in his many other books his deep Christian convictions.

At the heart of Ellul’s problem seems to be even a theological issue: the importance of human free will. The biblical tradition stresses that humanity was not created as puppets or robots but with the wonderful potential to choose the true freedom that comes in obedience to God. Yes, that freedom is and has been misused in tragic and sometimes almost inexplicable ways. So also with technology we have the choice to examine our reasons for the kinds of technology we develop. Ellul, unfortunately, advocates a kind of determinism that accepts the inevitability of the bad uses of technology outweighing the good. Certainly the potential for misuse is there, but should a religious perspective condemn technology wholesale, or rather, encourage the development of religious values, which then become the foundation for free choices in the free market? If so, one is left with Ellul’s sad misanthropy and implicit statism.

Fortunately, God took the risk with human freedom that Ellul refuses to value.