Confronting the Technological Society

20150108_TNA43MatlackEllullargeSamuel Matlack at The New Atlantis:

How did we reach a point where “nothing at all escapes technique today”? Ellul offers a long genealogy of technique, from primitive man to the Greeks and Romans, to Christianity, the early modern era, and lastly the Industrial Revolution, when technique finally came into ascendancy. Ellul’s attention to social changes — technological, economic, legal, administrative, institutional — makes it a more earthy account of modern technical development than those frequently given that focus entirely on shifts in philosophical and religious outlooks. (This hints at the influence on Ellul of Marx, who famously rejected Hegel’s preoccupation with consciousness, rather than the material conditions of life, in understanding history.) While explanations from the history of ideas are not irrelevant for Ellul — although he probably dismisses them far too quickly — he considers them sorely lacking when it comes to explaining the rapid spread of technical development across Europe. A better explanation, he believes, can be found in the convergence of five phenomena in the nineteenth century: the availability of scientific knowledge amassed over centuries; population growth; an economy at once stable but adaptable; a clear intention on the part of the whole society to exploit technical possibilities in all areas; and perhaps most importantly social plasticity — that is, a society willing to surrender its religious and social taboos and to trade in the supremacy of traditional groups for that of the individual.

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