Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Global Technological System: Uncontrollable and Incomprehensible

Jesus invites us today, as Christians and churches, to respond creatively to the challenges of our times. To do that, we must have a rigorously realistic understanding of those challenges. Sadly, we don’t. We continue to diagnose today’s ills as political problems in a societal context. This is a diagnosis made invalid by technological growth at least one hundred years ago. Jesus invites us to understand that the most significant challenges we face are the destructive consequences of our technological context. Happily, Jacques Ellul helps us to understand these challenges in his book, Perspectives on Our Age (1981).
To adequately understand the technological context in which we are trapped and by which we are abused, we must first realize that technology has organized itself as a system (Perspectives, 63); that is, it now exists as an integrated whole composed of interrelated parts. Because of this, a change in any part affects the whole and a change in the whole affects every part. Worse still, this technological system is now global in scope. It now confronts us as the Global Technological System (GTS).
Ellul points out that understanding technology as a global system has two critical consequences for us. First, it allows us to acknowledge that the GTS is beyond human control.
To begin with, the GTS is autonomous (64). Its nature is determined by its own internal logic and nothing else. Its nature is not subject to modification from any source, whether political, economic, or religious, outside of it. The GTS does not exist as a means chosen by humans to fulfill their desires and attain their goals. It imposes its desires and goals on us.
The GTS is also self-augmenting. It continues to grow exponentially for its own internal reasons. Again, no source of human power external to it can slow or stop that growth. All societies, organized social groups, and individual human beings are slaves to it.
This is not to say that the GTS is able to organize and expand itself without the participation of humans. The GTS is able to rigorously organize and exponentially expand itself, however, because it amply rewards only those humans who strengthen it and mercilessly punishes all others.
This self-organizing and self-augmenting GTS also escapes human control because, unlike all other systems, it lacks any self-regulating “negative” feedback. It lacks any means by which we humans might introduce critical self-limiting information into the system itself. For example, the GTS has given us chemical, nuclear, and media technologies with damaging consequences. Rather than repairing that damage and discontinuing those technologies, we find ourselves confronted by a beastly GTS that either ignores the damage done or adds yet more technologies to mitigate some aspects of it while causing additional problems of their own.
The second critical consequence of understanding that technology is a global system is that it forces us to acknowledge that the GTS is beyond our comprehension.
We cannot even understand its component technologies because, to do so properly, we would need to understand the part each plays in the whole and how the whole effects each part. At this point, the GTS is far too complex for us to be able to do that.
Let us take TV as an example. We think of ourselves as free in relation to TV. We also think of TV as independent of the GTS. On the basis of these two assumptions, we imagine we need only choose to turn our TV off to take care of any damaging effects.
Sadly, TV as a technological phenomenon is more complex than that. To begin with, TV as a technological medium is just one of innumerable technologies in the GTS and tightly linked to others such as those of advertising and consumption. It is also just one of many that make our contemporary world one dominated by visual images.
Nor are we free from TV. All the groups in which we participate, including churches, expect us to keep up with the latest everything. If we don’t, every group we belong to will swiftly punish us with marginality. Watching TV is the best way to stay informed in this way.
Being part of the GTS means “working at a generally technological job that is quite uninteresting, repetitive, and anything but absorbing” (67). When we get home, we want to relax. Watching TV is a very effective way of taking care of this technologically-induced need too.
We can see, then, that freeing ourselves from the GTS is far more complicated than first imagined because our relationship with each technology, and each technology’s relationship to the GTS, is incomprehensibly complex.
In addition to this complexity, the GTS escapes our human ability to comprehend it because its ambivalence makes it behave in unpredictable ways. Each new technology is ambivalent. It brings with it both positive and negative effects, inseparably. When added to the GTS, it causes unexpected changes to the system as a whole, also both positive and negative. We can never rid ourselves of the negative while keeping the positive. They’re a package deal. Furthermore, we can only become aware of the negative effects long after a new technology has been introduced. All supposedly scientific forecasts of long-term effects, made in the present, are only emotional arguments masked as logical ones to overcome opposition to the introduction of a new technology.

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.