In the distant past, we humans lived in a creational context. We experienced an immediate relationship with creation and it was creation itself which both provided for our basic needs and confronted us with our greatest threats. With the development of cities and writing, society became our primary context, mediated our relationships with creation, provided us with our means of living, and made war the greatest threat to our survival. Today, we live in a third context: a technological society. Today our most significant livelihoods and threats of death are technological in nature. It is technology, more than politics, economics, or religion, which structures our societies, cultures, and personalities.
Unexpectedly, the innumerable technologies developing separately since about 1750 eventually coalesced into a single technological system. Worse, this system is now global in extent. As individuals, cultures, and societies, we now face a Global Technological System (GTS) that far exceeds our ability to control or even comprehend.
“Still, one thing seems absolutely certain,” says Jacques Ellul, and that is the “opposition between the development of the technological system on one hand and society and human beings on the other” (Perspectives on Our Age, 69).
Jacques draws a distinction between our technological society and the GTS. He says that the difference lies in the fact that, yes, while technology is the dominant factor in determining the nature of every society, culture, and Olympian personality today, it is still not the only factor. We humans, for example, remain stubbornly irrational and spontaneous creatures. Furthermore, every society, “being historical and a result of the past, and existing in an emotional world of nationalisms, is as irrational as humanity and as unfit for technology” (69).
Our problem? The alien nature and inescapability of the GTS. It obeys no laws but those of its own internal nature. It grows exponentially. Consequently, it challenges the vitality of every human individual, culture, society, and ecosystem on earth each time and in every way it touches them.
Jacques compares the GTS to a cancer in the human body. I refer to the GTS as a parasite that has reached such a point, in its integration and growth, that it is threatening the life of its host: all individuals, cultures, societies, and ecosystems on our planet.
Our challenge as human individuals and societies, and especially as Christians and churches, is to free ourselves from this beastly GTS. How? “As a matter of fact,” Jacques admits, “we do not see any possible historical solution” (70). The only certainty is that the GTS will continue to grow and, as it does, so too will the psychological, cultural, sociological, and ecological chaos it causes.
We can, however, dismiss one common false savior: politics. No politician, political party, or set of governmental regulations is going to alter the nature or slow the growth of the GTS. Its brute existence and powers of assimilation are too strong. We make no witness to Jesus, then, by getting delirious or apocalyptic about presidential or parliamentary elections. Jesus does not call us to vote for the lesser of two irrelevant evils or even to vote at all.
A false idea: we live in a society which is constantly changing. This is true only at the most superficial level but not otherwise. “Sociologically…we actually have three levels: the level of events and circumstances, which is always the level of politics; the level of far-reaching changes, for instance economic phenomena…; and the level of stable structures, which, I believe, are given us by technology” (73).
To say the GTS is stable does not mean it never changes. On a superficial level, change is constant. New technological gadgets hit the market all the time. But, at a deeper level, the GTS “obeys its own law of evolution, and it is only very slightly influenced by events” (73). Its own alien nature remains unchanged and its exponential growth continues.
The best way to allow evil to grow is to ignore, deny, or justify it. This is what we’ve been doing in relation to the GTS. “We are so excited by events, by circumstances, by the latest news, that in regard to fundamentals, we always feel we have time …But this is not true. If technology [the GTS] keeps growing, then disorder will keep growing; and the more the disorder increases, the greater our fundamental danger” (73-74).
Still, Jacques affirms that “there are groups who hold out some hope” (74). These are groups of people who, in 1980 when he was writing, were growing aware of the threat to vitality posed by the GTS. These were people involved in antinuclear movements, in advocacy for ecosystems and consumers, and in neighborhood associations. In small ways the latter groups of local citizens were able to hold their municipal governments accountable for decisions which affected their immediate neighborhoods.
Jacques looked to the venerable, non-Western, civilization of Islam to see if it held its own against the GTS and could, thereby, serve all of us as a living example of a meaningful alternative to the beast. Sadly, even it was unable to. Case in point: Iran. The Ayatollah Khomeini wanted “to return to a pure, hard Islam, indeed to the Middle Ages, with a rejection of all technologies ,” but this, Jacques points out, was “absolutely untenable…because one can no longer live without accepting technologies” (77).
Perhaps, at this point, looking at the Iranian experience from a Chalcedonian point of view might be helpful. We have Islamic civilization and the GTS. One, we do not want to separate the two by excluding either Islamic civilization or the GTS. Two, we can’t mix the two: the GTS has an absolutely alien nature which does not blend with any historical civilization. Three, we want to keep Islamic civilization primary and the GTS secondary.
The results? One, the Ayatollah and his millions of sympathizers wanted to affirm Islamic civilization and exclude the GTS. That proved impossible. Two, Islamic civilization and the GTS didn’t mix at all. Three, the GTS inexorably overwhelmed Islamic civilization and radically subordinated it to itself.
We might add here that, between 1750 and 2000, the same abject subordination of Christendom, churches, and Christians to the GTS had taken place in the West.
Nor did Jacques find that traditional African civilizations, despite the ideology of Africanism, could offer us any meaningful alternative to GTS. Political, economic, even intellectual elites in Africa were delirious about technology and desperately marginal Africans saw it as their only hope of escaping poverty. “But they [all] fail[ed] to realize that they [were] launching the twofold process of destroying their culture and entering into a universe that [was] totally alien to them, a universe that [would] bring disruptions on a psychological level and that [would] in fact cause in all areas…serious disruptions” (77).
The GTS is an absolutely alien, already gigantic, and exponentially growing parasite that has reached the point where it is killing its host: the biosphere, that whole interrelated community of life composed of all humans, cultures, societies, and ecosystems. Politics won’t save us from the GTS. Our obsession with the latest everything only distracts us and allows its evil to expand. So far the GTS has humiliated all efforts by historical civilizations—whether Christian, Islamic, or African—to modify or tame it. Some individuals and small groups, here and there, have been able to meaningfully question the destructiveness of the GTS but, so far, to little effect.
That’s where today’s reflections on Ellul’s Perspectives leave us. In response, let us remember that our most meaningful response to the GTS is unmasking the Olympian powers behind it by witnessing with greater clarity to Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only true god/man of truth, freedom, love, and vitality. As such, he is the only one who cannot be assimilated by the GTS. He remains the one bone in the throat of the GTS that will bring it down. Let us glorify him, then, and mitigate the suffering of humanity and creation, by discerning and affirming how he calls us to freedom today.
Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.