May 19, 2012

The Unabomber's Favorite Philosopher (and Mine)

Jacques Ellul
Earlier this month the Heartland Institute, a climate-denying "think tank," plastered Ted "The Unabomber" Kaczynski's scowling face on a series of billboards in Chicago.

"I still believe in global warming," the copy read. "Do you?"

Kaczynski has long been the figurative poster boy for technophobic insanity, of course, but the Heartland Institute made it literal. The billboard campaign was quickly recognized as a miscalculation and withdrawn, but it served as a reminder of what a gift Kaczynski turned out to be for some of the very enemies he sought to destroy. It also served as a reminder of how egregiously he misused the ideas of a philosopher who is revered as a genius by many people, myself included.

I refer to Jacques Ellul, author of The Technological Society. Today is the eighteenth anniversary of Ellul's death; this year marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

David Kaczynski, Ted's brother, has said that Ted considered The Technological Society (published in French in 1954 and in English ten years later) his "bible." That's easy to believe when you compare how closely the Unabomber Manifesto follows – once you weed out its many hate-filled digressions – Ellul's ideas.

Kaczynski claimed in all humility that half of what he read in The Technological Society he knew already; he discovered in Ellul a soul mate rather than a teacher. "When I read the book for the first time, I was delighted," he told a psychiatrist who interviewed him in jail, "because I thought, 'Here is someone who is saying what I've already been thinking.'"

So, what are Ellul's ideas on technology? His most central point was that technology has to be seen systemically, as a unified entity, rather than as a disconnected series of individual machines. He also argued that technology is as much a state of mind as a material phenomenon, in part because human beings have been absorbed into the technological complex he called "technique."

Ellul defined technique as "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity." While technique isn't limited to machines, machines are “deeply symptomatic” of technique. They represent "the ideal toward which technique strives."

These quotes hint at Ellul's conviction that technique has become almost a living entity, a form of being that drives inexorably to overtake everything that isn't technique, humans included. The belief that humans can no longer control the technologies they've unleashed – that technique has become autonomous – is also central to his thought. "Wherever a technical factor exists," he said, "it results, almost inevitably, in mechanization: technique transforms everything it touches into a machine.”

Along the way technique's drive toward completion does provide certain comforts, Ellul acknowledged, but overall its devastation of what really matters the human spirit is complete. “Technique demands for its development malleable human ensembles," he said. "…The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created."

Ellul's reputation among scholars is mixed. He has his admirers, but many philosophers of technology consider him a nut. The principle objection is that he reifies technology, imputing to it a life and will of its own. It's true that Ellul's language often gives that impression, but again, his definition of technique includes human beings. Without their assent and participation its vitality would collapse. 

Ellul's unrestrained literary style also won him no friends in the academy. He had no interest in scholarly convention. His books include few citations of other works and even fewer qualifications – Ellul never doubted his own argument. His writing is filled with colorful description, irony and righteous anger. He's more direct than the stereotypical French intellectual, and thus more fun to read. Nonetheless, his erudition is extraordinary, his insight incomparable.

He did occasionally go over the top. Perhaps the most embarrassing moment in The Technological Society comes when, in the process of making the quite reasonable point that technique finds a way to co-opt any political movement or art form that resists it, he dismisses jazz as "slave music."

A third reason Ellul is considered something of an oddball in academic circles is his faith. Throughout his prolific career he divided his time between books on technology and books on religion. (That he could follow Jesus and still appreciate Marx will perhaps be more surprising in America than it would be in France.) He was a theologian of subtlety and depth, but one suspects that for many his religious beliefs undermine rather than enhance his credibility. 

Ted Kaczynski managed to ignore Ellul's religious views altogether. Where Kaczynski sought with his manifesto to overthrow technology by force, Ellul in The Technological Society explicitly declines to offer any solution at all. Ellul insisted his intention was only to diagnose the problem, not prescribe a treatment. He also insisted, however, that as despairing as his analyses often seemed, he was no pessimist. There's always room for hope, Ellul said, even if it has to rely on the possibility of miracle.

Kevin Kelly
Another person who's found Ellul's thought amenable, though he doesn't seem to realize it, is the technophilic writer Kevin Kelly. In his recent book, What Technology Wants, Kelly devotes several pages to the Unabomber Manifesto, calling it, with apologies, one of the most astute analyses of technology he's ever read. This is largely because Kelly agrees with Kaczynski that technology is a dynamic, holistic system – the "technium," he calls it that behaves autonomously. "It is not mere hardware," Kelly writes; "rather it is more akin to an organism. It is not inert, nor passive; rather the technium seeks and grabs resources for its own expansion. It is not merely the sum of human action, but in fact it transcends human actions and desires."

That's as Ellulian as it gets.

The major difference between Kelly's view of technological autonomy and Ellul's is that Kelly sees the technium/technique as a force that ultimately increases human freedom while Ellul believed the opposite.

For Kelly, humans + technology = an evolutionary extension of the species.

For Ellul, humans + technology = mutation.

Kelly makes no mention in his book of Ellul, although he frequently cites Langdon Winner, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who happens to be one of Ellul's staunchest defenders. Winner's 1977 book, Autonomous Technology, which Kelly credits as a key influence on his thinking, is a seminal contribution in its own right, but it also wears its debt to Ellul on its sleeve.

On one of the dozens of pages that mention Ellul, Winner offers what I suspect is an intentionally measured assessment of The Technological Society, calling it "less an attempt at a systematic theory than a wholesale catalog of assertions and illustrations buzzing around a particular point." Still, he adds, "It is possible to learn from the man's remarkable vision without adopting the idiosyncrasies of his work."

[Langdon Winner is one of the scholars scheduled to speak at a centenary celebration of Ellul's life and work at Wheaton College in July.]

©Doug Hill, 2012


  1. Thanks for this. I posted a sort-of combined review of Ellul and Kelly on my blog a few months back (; I'm in dialogue with both the techno-optimist and anarcho-primitivist crowds - it gets interesting.

    I've got Winner's Autonomous Technology on my desk, but probably won't get to it until after summer.

  2. Nice essay Doug! Keep up the good work.

  3. now trying to decide which higher-ed-tech group to post the link to

  4. Thanks Vanessa. Let me know what you decide!

  5. Ellul was a brilliant mind. His words hold truer today than they ever did.