We live in a technological society.
In the Discipleship and Ethics course we give significant time to reflecting on the alienating power of various technological devices. Yet, following the lead of Jacques Ellul, we start not by focusing on the invasion of our lives by machines and devices, but by exploring technique--the principle of the machine. It is a way of thinking that submits any aspect of life to rational, quantitative analysis and determines the most efficient way to do something.
Machines are pure technique, but much of life is becoming machine-like. Values which humans are told to honor and to live by are the values of the machine: organization, standardization, precision, rationalization, systematization, efficiency, and artificiality. Technique despises other values that hinder efficiency: individuality, spontaneity, variety, diversity, the natural, freedom, and subjectivity.
So what is wrong with the rule of technique? It is not that organization, precision, and efficiency are always bad and spontaneity and diversity are always good, but that our unquestioning devotion to technique crowds out the second list. When that happens we lose something valuable and we cannot thrive as people God has created us to be. An overemphasis on technique hinders interdependent relationships and the possibility of being an alternative community of Jesus followers.
Technique revolves around seeking the most efficient way of doing what can be done. To do something in the most efficient way means to do it in a way that uses the least amount of time, money, energy, space, etc. Efficiency is not evil. Yet today the most efficient way is generally assumed to be the best way. It is this confusion—this equating “efficiency” with “best,” or “efficiency” with “effective”—that enables technique to act as an enslaving power. In reality “efficient” is one of a variety of characteristics we could use to evaluate what method or approach is best or most effective. This is illustrated this through examples from Mark's life in the first video in the resources below.
On this website we have opted to separate “technique” as a foundational paradigm from “technological society” a theme. Technique, the spirit of efficiency, is powerfully present in the technologies of our day, yet it is a factor that repeatedly comes up in other themes explored in this website as well. In the second video in the resources below Mark reflects on the production of winter tomatoes to illustrate an example of technique that is not a machine, but turns humans into machine and sends out ripples of alienation.
At the very center of our faith, and the good news, is our God becoming extremely vulnerable, becoming a baby, a human, walking around preaching and teaching, erasing religious boundary lines, and eventually dying on the cross rather than opting for a move of power. If God just wanted to get across some information about his attributes he could have used skywriting.
There is something very vulnerable and very human at the heart of God's saving work (human meant both in the sense of Jesus as God incarnate was human and also in the sense of Jesus connecting with humans). Ellul argues that the spirit of technique and its drive for efficiently alienates and dehumanizes. As heralds of the gospel we need to reflect very carefully on the relation between gospel, incarnation, Word, and technique.
How to respond to the alienating power of technique?
We will explore that question in relation to different themes. Yet, answering that question in a general way has value. For years now at the end of the class on technique I have shared the following ideas with students:
1. Critical acceptance: Our call is not to be anti-technique but to seek to expose the deified character of technique. We can gain freedom from this power by identifying it (as Echthroi) and treating it as a “thing” rather than as a power.
2. We can be bearers of freedom by acting like free people in relation to technique: Random acts of saying no to technique free us from its power and allow us to experience some freedom from its alienating consequences: Simple things- cook a meal, write a letter, read slowly, visit someone in person – the key is intentionality against the power of efficiency that says we must do it most efficient way.
3. Develop a culture of asking evaluative questions: Is it bringing us together or drawing us apart? What will be gained and what will be lost? What is displaced? What kind of person am I becoming by using the technique? (or what kind of community are we becoming).
Resistance as a community, rather than individual efforts, offers more wisdom and more strength to resist. Resistance to technique will also deepen our experience of community.
We invite you to imagine possibilities in your life and your church’s life.
Where are places you feel the alienation of technique?
Can you imagine what freedom from it might feel like in those situations?
What would some steps of freedom be?
Front Loading Washer vs Norma: Most Efficient? Best?
Technique pulls us toward thinking that the most efficient way is the best. Sometimes it is. But if we reflect on our lives we observe it is not always the case. This video describes examples of both realities.
Tomatoland: Technique and Winter Tomatoes
South Florida is not an ideal habitat for tomatoes, but through technique we have figured out ways to grow lots of tomatoes there in the winter. What happens in the process? Technique produces a tomato that looks like a tomato, but does not taste like one and technique transforms workers into machine-like humans.
The Betrayal by Technology, with Jacques Ellul
With his typically masterful insight, Ellul explores the impact of technology and the lure of technique on our modern lives. He asks critically, does technique really make us free?
Translation note: We believe that the word technique does more to capture Ellul's intended meaning than technology. When the subtitles say technology, think technique.
The definitive work on the subject.
"Ellul convincingly demonstrates that technology, which we continue to conceptualize as the servant of man, will overthrow everything that prevents the internal logic of its development, including humanity itself -- unless we take the necessary steps to move human society out of the environment that 'technique' is creating to meet its own needs." -- Robert Theobald, The Nation
Originally broadcast on CBC Radio's Ideas as a series of interviews, Ellul's first-person approach here makes his ideas accessible to readers looking for new ways of understanding our society. Perspectives on Our Age also gives unique new insight into Ellul's life, his work, and the origins and development of his beliefs and theories.
Provides a more concise and accessible introduction to the paradigm of Technique.
Faith and Technology: Foundational Issues
A sermon by Mark Baker, part of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco’s Lenten series on technology (2/21/16). As we discern how and when to use technology, we must recognize that most efficient and best are not always the same thing; that tools we use are not passive—they shape us; and, that incarnation is central to our faith—presence matters.
I’m Suspicious of Efficiency, and I’m Addicted To It
by Courtney E. Martin
The more I think about it, the more I realize that it would probably be more accurate to say that I’m suspicious that modern humans — myself included — overvalue efficiency.
It’s a useful mindset in all kinds of different contexts and for a variety of reasons, some of which are very noble. . . Our capacity to discern which context we’re in — one where efficiency is the smart or even noble thing, and ones where it is actually a damaging expectation — is endangered. We live in a world that emphasizes efficiency too broadly. We wield it wherever we go — a mindless weapon that we swing around in even the most delicate and organic of situations. Read Complete Column