The Technical Phenomenon
Illustration: Reinhard Schafer
Although modern society lives amidst a high-tech urban-industrial environment, one might consider it as paradoxical that in today´s culture there is a vast unawareness of the technical phenomenon which was addressed thoroughly by French philosopher Jacques Ellul. What can even seem more paradoxical is that most professional scientists and engineers of our times are unaware of this phenomenon as well. How is this apparent paradox possible?... At this point it seems very useful to define as briefly as possible the technical phenomenon, as Ellul did not explicitly define this phenomenon in any of his essays, although the French philosopher did refer to it directly and indirectly in many of his sociological and political analysis.
The technical phenomenon essentially refers to the existence of patterns of habit that determine the way that humans relate to the environment, and also the way humans relate to each other. These patterns of habit can have diverse degrees of sophistication, ranging from highly ritualized and sophisticate patterns to more mechanistic ones. These patterns of habit also vary with time, or in other words, the patterns aren´t the same in modern society as, for instance, during the Middle-Ages. An easy example of these patterns of habit is the handling of smartphones, which has become a physical reflex in which it is easy to observe how such reflexes even overthrow individual conscious awareness and gesture, or to put it simply, it is easy to observe how very often individuals operate with the smartphone´s interface without necessarily knowing exactly the core motive.
Another important consideration is that these patterns of habit are linked to the architectures that characterize a given time, and this is why Jacques Ellul often remarks that the technical society and the technical system not only necessarily correlate to each other, but also each mutually requires the other in order to exist. These patterns of habit are very visible in the specific dynamics that are present in working environments and, by allowing to efficiently organize the management of resources, such patterns are crucial for avoiding diminishing returns at an economic level. As crucial morphogenetic factors, these patterns determine what can be feasibly built, and also in these patterns are implicit paradigms, this is, a way of relating empirically to the environment, and a way of solving its conflicts or tensions. But probably the most important aspect of these patterns of habit is that they determine how power is effectively materialized in a given society, and both the production of sciences as the production of technology are epiphenomena that derive from the specifics of such power structure.
It is commonly believed that technology is “applied science”, but a clear understanding of the technical phenomenon shows that only the existence of a specific architecture of power that correlates to the patterns of a given society allows sciences to become applicable, or to put it simply, a complete scientific description of an internal combustion engine won´t help a medieval artisan to build it. What´s more, an industrial engineer is free to design a machine for a utilitarian or economic purpose, and such design might rely on rigorous techno-scientific knowledge, but at the end of the day such machine can´t be feasibly built without the existence of the key link between an architecture of power and the patterns of habit that characterize a given society.
All the former obliges us to conclude that, as epiphenomena, both scientific and technological knowledge are powerless to modify the primordial technical phenomena, in the same way that a complete scientific understanding of a Formula 1 car doesn´t improve much one´s piloting skills or a complete biomechanical understanding of a dancer´s movements doesn´t assist us much in becoming better dancers.
Also, the existence of the technical phenomena decisively puts into question the capacity of politicians to solve the problems that concern their voters… As Jacques Ellul constantly reiterates in The Political Illusion (Wipf and Stock, 2015), it is fundamental to discern the problems that are present in the public opinion (which are those problems that voters expect politicians to solve…) from those problems that involve the constant modification and development of the industrial architectures, administration organization and the technological infrastructures of power which are functionally linked to society. In recent times, these infrastructures have become extremely complex, and the only feasible solution to the problems these structures can eventually cause to society (economic crisis, pollution, resource depletion, etc.) is by progressively centralizing the information of all their operations, a centralization process that attracts capital, drives economic growth and causes the constant aggrandizement of such infrastructures. This process of progressive centralization is implemented by global corporations and by technocratic-type organizations/institutions worldwide, and in essence the work of these organizations is to capture the novel patterns of habit that emerge in society and then channel these patterns into the production of more integral architectures and products. As the technical system and the technical society correlate directly to each other, this process of global centralization of technical operations cannot be effectuated without a crucial modification of the patterns of habit of society, not only during consumption, work, or leisure, but also in regard to the specific values accepted in practice by such society.
State-nation politicians have extremely little grip on this technocratic process of technical centralization at a global scale. They can either surrender to its demands (causing such State-nation politicians to lose effective power for decision-taking) or they can either aim to halt the process through protectionist policies. In this latter case they may keep up their political sovereignty from their voter´s perspective, but at the cost of fostering diminishing returns in many industrial and corporate sectors that are present in their nations.
Without a thorough understanding of the technical phenomena it becomes clear that all the political, technological and scientific solutions that are constantly being proposed for reducing global warming, pollution, deforestation, economic recession, health crises, or the depletion of resources can only constitute sterile proposals. From a purely problem-solving and technocratic perspective, the only temporary solution that is available to effectively “alleviate” the symptoms of these problems in modern society is by further development of infrastructure growth and technical centralization at a planetary scale. But is this the only path available?...
If instead of merely aiming to heal symptoms, one truly aims to address the root cause of this apparently unstoppable process of rampant planetary destruction, the study of the technical phenomenon leads us inevitably to the crucial importance of the patterns of habit that a given individual, community or society embrace. Values are linked to these patterns of habit, and neither science nor technology can alter these patterns because, as formerly affirmed, both sciences as technology derive from such patterns.
As a very optimistic conclusion it can be finally affirmed that there is available an alternative path which can radically counteract the techno-industrial “cancer” that is draining all the beauties of the earth and extinguishing about 200 species every single day. This path demands essentially a change of values; a change of values that emerges only in the form of novel habits, novel understandings of the processes at work, novel modes of relationship with the earth and novel modes of relationship with all other living beings.