Jacques Ellul’s astonishing work, “La Technique” was published in French in 1954. The English language translation took the title, “The Technological Society”, which is a wee bit unfortunate, because it’s not about technology. It’s about something much bigger than that – the reduction of human beings to units and automatons produced by the development of technical approaches to every aspect of life.
It’s hard to just pin this down in a few words, but he is saying that machines, and machine-like ways of thinking, are the result of taking a technical approach to the world. They emerge from a combination of rationalism, materialism, the insistence on measuring everything and reducing all values to the those which can measured, replacing the qualitative with the quantitative, the setting of goals and targets and the extensive measures enacted to monitor progress towards those ends. “The Technique” demands that individuals are forced to conform, are reduced to mere examples of the mass, so that they can be manipulated more effectively.
Over 70 years on we can see how his insight is even more relevant now. With the development of both mass media and social media individuals are coerced and manipulated every day to buy, to produce, to think and to act in pre-determined ways. We see a proliferation of “standards”, “protocols”, “plans”, “targets”, “supervision” and “surveillance” in many areas of our lives. When we make a choice it can be hard to know if it’s a free choice, or if we’ve been set up to make that choice. Set up by institutions, companies, or peer groups. When you become a “dedicated follower of fashion”, as the Kinks described, how much of your life is freely chosen?
I’m still reading this book and still getting my head around it, but here, in the middle, I stumble across something that in the midst of the increasingly rancorous Brexit debate, hits me between the eyes. It’s about democracy.
“If a regime is sanctioned by the people, it can indeed be maintained that it is democratic. But, of course, that is precisely what Hitler said of his regime. We must not lose sight of the fact that today popular support can be secured with great ease by means of certain precise techniques.”
What would he have thought of this current phase of history with its hidden, targeted Facebook ads, deliberately faked videos and images circulated online, and propaganda paid for by anonymous donors?
But here’s the paragraph which really grabbed me –
“The transition of the majority to a condition of unanimity through the adhesion of the individual, who renounces his individuality to meld with the collectivity, is precisely the transition from democracy to dictatorship.”
I had come to see democracy as a way of integrating the diverse opinions, views and desires of the people who live in the same society. Integration, remember, is about the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts. In other words, it’s not about the reduction of variety to monotony. It’s not about homogenising a society. It’s about accepting that all groups consist of vastly different individuals, each with their own beliefs, values, views, desires and preferences, and finding ways for them all to live together.
But these days democracy is presented as a kind of winner takes all, of infrequent moments of the expression of an opinion followed by years of compliance. “We won. You lost. Suck it up!”
I know 17 million people in Britain voted to Leave the EU, but 16 million voted to Remain, and another 13 million people didn’t vote. To say democracy demands that all 46.5 million voters should accept the wishes and preferences of 17 million, isn’t democracy, it’s a move towards dictatorship.
Threatening people who want the opposite of what you want by calling them “traitors” and claiming “betrayal” when your wishes are not fulfilled are attempts to beat them all into submission. If such tactics had succeeded 46.5 million people would now be in total agreement. They’d all be thinking the same way. That’s not human, and it’s not democratic. It would be totalitarianism.
I think this is the threat of the populists throughout the world – they hijack the idea of democracy, reduce diversity to simplistic binary choices, and, then once in power, seek to impose their views on the whole population through coercion, compliance and force. Haven’t we learned anything from history?