Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Technology: Conformity and Compensation

In Perspectives on Our Age (1981), Jacques Ellul points out that living in a society increasingly dominated by a Global Technological System (GTS) is painful, to a greater or lesser degree, for all of us humans (48). That’s because the nature of the GTS differs fundamentally from our own. It is cold, rational, and rigid. While we humans may occasionally imitate those ways, we remain mostly passionate, emotional, and spontaneous.
If we are treated more like technological automatons than genuine humans for very long, we grow angry or depressed and seek “compensations” (49). In other words, “we are forced to find something providing satisfactions elsewhere and permitting us to live otherwise” (49).
This need grows increasingly pressing with the growth of the GTS. As the GTS expands, we all increasingly suffer “the suppression of the subject and the suppression of meaning” (49).

The GTS requires all subjects to act like objects. When we learn how to drive a car, for example, we can’t drive it any way we might subjectively want to. There is only one correct, efficient, effective, successful way of driving a car. This one way includes conforming to all traffic regulations in addition to knowing how to operate the vehicle. If we fail to conform, we are punished.
The GTS also reduces all subjects to objects. Nothing personal. Rightly subjective human relationships require direct flexible contact between people. The GTS likes to slip between people, to mediate our relationships, thereby rendering them increasingly indirect, objective, rigid, and useful rather than allowing them to remain traditionally direct, subjective, flexible, and meaningful.
This kind of objectification rightly bothers us. “We still feel we [49] are subjects, we still want a very personal, unique encounter” (49-50).
The GTS suppresses meaning by subordinating all goals to the growth of its own power. This is not power to be used as a means of accomplishing good ends. This is the pursuit of power as an end in itself. Empowering the GTS means reducing all humans, societies, cultures, and ecosystems to nothing more than means for attaining that meaningless end. That’s the problem.
So we experience an interplay between the suppression of subject and meaning by technology and our resort to compensations in response. We may observe this interplay of suppression and compensation in all areas of human activity, including politics, art, and religion.
In politics, technology has provided the government with untold means of unlimited power. Because of these available means, one does not need to be a consummate politician, like Germania’s Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), to wield great power. In fact, because all these available means are technological in nature, one must be a technocrat to use them and being a politician, an ignorant generalist, is of no use at all.
That’s right. To make a decision, today’s politicians must consult technological experts for their advice as to which decision is best and, of course, follow it. To implement a decision, politicians must then rely on other technological experts—in this case, bureaucrats—to see it done. If these administrative technocrats don’t want the decision of a politician to be implemented, it isn’t.
This should dampen our excitement about elections. Meaningful democracy ended decades ago. Who voters elect to public office now doesn’t matter. Certain decisions are technologically feasible. The rest aren’t. Only certain technocrats can make informed guesses as to which are. Only other technocrats can decide which will be implemented. It is the GTS, however, which determines which decisions are ultimately both feasible and implemented. It rewards technocrats who work with it and weeds out those who don’t.
This should also dampen our expectations about respect for any rule of law. The GTS conforms only to its own systemic requirements. It rewards with positions of responsibility only those technocrats who ignore all other constraints such as justice, equity, or even mercy. Only the growth of systemic power matters.
The GTS, therefore, suppresses the subject, in this case individual politicians, by reducing to insignificance their role in it. They either become technocrats themselves or remain insignificant like the rest of us. It also suppresses meaning by reducing qualities such as truth, freedom, love, and life to insignificance.
In Europe, from 1750 to 1950, “great individuals forged all history. Today this is no longer true. History is made by the heavy mechanisms of the state machinery and by the social forces that combine with or contradict one another—hence, things that totally escape the power of the subject” (52).
Angered, saddened, and perhaps fearful of this dominance by the GTS, we readily fall for temptations as compensation. Politicians still speak as if they are in charge. We still listen to them, and support or contest them, as if we too are subjects capable of dispensing with the GTS altogether or at least of modifying it meaningfully if we so choose. In this way, politicians and voters cooperate to maintain nothing more than a shared delusion.
The GTS flattens individuality. Modern art conforms to this flattening by eliminating any recognizable subjects from its works. In painting, for example, we have only abstract forms or random globs of color. In one prominent literary movement, novelists no longer structure their stories in terms of identifiable subjects or plots.
Angered, saddened, and perhaps fearful as well of this conformity to the GTS in the arts, we readily fall for the temptation of “total sexual liberation as a compensation. Erotic spectacles make up for the far too sophisticated technological spectacle” (54). Popular culture becomes saturated with sexual images.
Our participation in churches may also be nothing more than an indulgence in this type of compensation. “We now have technological organization on one side and human beings, all humanity, on the other side. Religion plays the same role here, allowing us to escape, and to continue living at the same time” (55). We perhaps unwittingly regard our church as nothing more than a means of compensation when we primarily seek emotional satisfaction from it, maybe even some emotionally intense experiences, rather than seeking to discern and affirm the always surprising word of truth which Jesus seeks to speak to us today.

Copyright © Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.