My discovery of Jacques Ellul
By Miguel A. Fernandez
The world we discover as kids is a playful one in which the imagination plays with the toys, and the toys play with the imagination. The power of imagination illuminates such play, aspiring to create a new world, and during this play children act like stars in the center of their galaxies, observing everything revolve around them.
But very soon, the imagination presents its first questions to the mind: Am I playing with the toys, or are the toys playing with me?... Language then answers the question by means of a complex of symbols, concepts and words; language defines each toy, each game, each rule, developing in the mind a world in which the child is no longer in the center, like a sun orbited by planets, but becomes subservient to rigid paths of thought that no longer admit any play, this is, that no longer allow the imagination illuminate our genuine and free experience.
If we assume that technology is one of the most developed “toys” of humanity, it´s then licit to ask if we are playing with technology, or if technology is playing with us… And it´s an extremely important question to ponder because the answer inevitably defines the character of our freedoms and political worldviews.
When I was an industrial engineering student I was taught that technology is applied science, this is, that technology obeys scientific and mathematical laws. So based on this premise, the acknowledgement of such scientific laws is what grants the engineer the power over technology. This view on technology is not only present in academia but has also vastly permeated the political, scientific and economic domains, and the main narrative on technology that is shared by these sectors is the following: if the engineer truly has power upon technology, then it´s use is subservient to economic and political goals which are defined based on human values… But what occurs with this narrative if it´s demonstrated that, in practice, engineers don´t have actual power upon technology nor control upon the direction of its development?...
After my academic period, from 2006 to 2011 I developed construction projects in the primary energy sector. The primary sector is absolutely vital for any industrialized economy, and today nobody can deny the very tight correlation that exists between GDP and primary energy consumption. So all and every one of us profit materially from the primary energy sector, and I recall that back in the day it was estimated that each American consumed an average of about 12.000 Watts of power by simply being alive… In this sector, given a specific set of restrictions (budget, financial scheme, available skills, logistics, techniques and resources), there is only one optimal architectural solution that maximizes power production in a specific power plant emplacement. Quite another problem is if the engineers are competent enough to attain or not this optimum, yet such optimum is independent of them. Very often this industrial sector is highly subsidized and much indebted, and yet the production of energy is so extremely vital for today´s economy that, in the large scheme of things, the need of energy production growth is much more prioritized for avoiding inflation in comparison to the need of increasing the amount of money in circulation. Consequently, no State-nation political group or administration sector dares to interfere in the development of this industrial sector, first because they don´t have the technical/technocratic competence to do so without entailing high risks, and second because any interference that disrupts the optimum levels of energy production can easily backfire the financial interests of both sectors.
As everything in our world depends on energy availability, this industrial sector is, at the end of the day, an “untouchable” one, this is, the most critical sector of the economy. This doesn´t restrain lobbies or political groups to aspire to control and monopolize its processes, or effectively intervene in them, but any actual intervention intended for satisfying private, regional or political interests shall inevitably create too much tension, inefficiencies, and systemic disruptions, and therefore centralization of decision-making is the name of the game in this sector. What´s more, this primary energy sector is so extremely complex and networked that the massive amount of information it provides can only be managed by outsourcing it to very powerful computing systems, as for instance those employed by BP or E.ON.
Regardless of all the political declarations for reducing global greenhouse gases (CO2, etc.) in no case is yet demonstrated that this primary energy system has ever surrendered to such intentions for the political goal of reducing global warming. This is a well-corroborated fact, a fact that demonstrates that this industrial sector is indeed politically and socially “untouchable”. As engineers we are allowed to “touch” such sector, but only to the extent we develop it to make it more integrated, efficient and productive.
So on one hand our modern lifestyle depends entirely on this primary energy sector, but on the other hand it is a socio-politically “untouchable” sector, and therefore the only option available is to let it run by itself and develop based on exclusive industrial drives. In 2009-2010 I was quite perplexed about this state of affairs, and also quite shocked that very few even talked about it. The feeling was like travelling in a train that has no machine operator, a train that is simply heading forward, faster, and in this sensation of frenetic high speed, to jump off from the train becomes an even riskier alternative. Politicians and influential figures are ahead, of course, in the first-class wagons, but neither they dare to stop train nor know how to actually do so if they willed. If you ask where the train is heading or what shall happen to it when it no longer has enough fuel, you shall receive no answers. (See illustrative video here)
Precisely etiologist Robert Ardrey prophesied in 1973: "The modern world is like a train through fog loaded with charged ammunition, on a moonless night and with all the lights out" So the inevitable question arises: is anyone actually in control of this critical industrial sector, this is, is anyone in charge of the “train”?...
If we dare to find any answer we definitely have to start with Jacques Ellul´s views on the problem. Ellul pointed out that the technological system is autonomous and that it´s driven entirely by inner mechanisms that escape all human and political control. Although Ellul´s assumption doesn´t apply to all economic sectors, as far as I´ve observed it does apply extremely well to the most critical one, this is, to the primary energy industry, because such sector is a very rigid sector that seems to run on “railways” that are built in front of the “train” as a matter of short-term necessity. But apart from Ellul´s profound analysis on the problem, the French philosopher also provides alternatives which are essentially cultural and, to some extent existential and religious. Personally, I owe a lot to the work of Jacques Ellul, not only because his ideas are often referenced and updated in my books, but also because his intellectual contributions to my own experience in the field of industrial engineering allowed me to catalyze such experience, integrate it, understand how to safely get out of the “train”, not wasting time in political battles lost in advance nor getting trapped by any ideological persuasion, ultimately encountering a much higher sense of freedom, self-fulfillment, and discovery of extraordinary places and activities that are not indicated in the “railroad map” that is essentially implemented by today´s globalization processes.
As we know, train sets are one of kid´s favorite toys, and what is so joyful about playing with them –as I also recall myself as a kid- is the chance this type of toys grant for defining one´s own railway routes and one´s own landscape. Imagination aspires to provide such higher freedom, and precisely Jacques Ellul proposed us to make use of our imagination and discover the languages, concepts and words that can eventually play with technology, the dearest toy of modernity, in a context where technology doesn´t play with us nor risks running over our human freedom and cultural heritage.
By Miguel A. Fernandez