There are some readings that mark you. This summer, I read “The Technician System”, this philosophical and sociological treatise by Jacques Ellul. I encourage you to read it, because it will allow you to nourish your reflexion on the evolution of our society and the impacts of the digital technology that he only foresaw. This book is fascinating and questions us on the world in which we live. And if you wonder what it has to do with digital, I will try to share with you my understanding of his message.
The Technical System
First, here is what I understood from Jacques Ellul’s definition of the Technological System.
Technology is one of the components of the techno-system, but this notion is too restrictive, so we must talk about techniques (a technique is not necessarily linked to technology: we can talk about HR techniques, management techniques, etc.). The technical system replaces the natural system in which man has evolved for several millennia. The natural system which with its systems of induced beliefs (Superstitions, religions, etc…) imposed limits to the Man, ethical and moral with a sense of the collective.
Jacques Ellul speaks of the Technician System, because the system only needs itself and feeds itself, man has no more action on its development. The complexity of life is summarized in a sequence of small pieces that will be treated by one or the other technique. When these techniques cause perverse effects or damage, we take refuge in other techniques to solve the problems caused by the technique initially used. This segmentation can be found at all levels, such as HR techniques, management techniques, etc.…
At the same time, there is a perpetual movement of evolution of the technique/technologies which must be considered as progress. This “progress” comes from R&D which explores new knowledge, develops new technical possibilities from which new techniques or technologies directly result. Man, still wants to believe that he masters everything by separating research from its technical applications. It is true that research is neither bad nor good, it has no ethical consideration, this aspect being reserved for the good or bad uses that are made of the results of the research… However, I do not know if you have noticed, it does not work like that because a technique and/or technology, when it is available, ends up being used (e.g.: Research on the nuclear bomb, at the beginning fundamental research on the atom and the nuclear…)
The other observation that allows us to define the technical system as a system that is self-sufficient is that the progression is continuous in a global way, it is possible that there is an abandonment of a direction in a transitory or definitive way, but it is in one of the dimensions, the others continue to progress. Thus, when we are no longer able to evolve in one sector, for example the automobile, we apply the techniques developed for this industry to other sectors such as aviation or space. We can then have reverse loops; each sector can feed the others…)
The last element that caused the acceleration of the growth of the technical system was the emergence of computer science, which allows for more and more automation of tasks. The digital transformation, and the appearance of the foundations of Artificial Intelligence and quantum computing are signs of this acceleration.
Do we still wonder about the usefulness for mankind of this forced march towards “progress” which has impacts even in the political organization of our developed societies? No, of course, you have on one side the progressives and on the other, those who can only be outside the field of reason.
What role for digital technology?
Jacques Ellul sensed at the time, at the end of the 1970’s, when computer science was in its infancy and full of promises, promises of simplification and automation of a number of tasks performed by man, that this revolution was not without its dangers. He already foresaw the segmentation of a complex activity into a multiplicity of processes allowing to reach the result. The risk inherent in this technical organization is that tasks become more and more specialized to the detriment of a more holistic approach. One of the consequences is a hyperspecialization of human actors, leading to an inability to look at the whole process and thus accelerating the loss of meaning in the work. This explains, at least in part, the disengagement that we are seeing more and more in the world of work.
To be effective in this new environment, more and more scientists and technicians must be trained. The whole educational system must be oriented towards this objective, as everything that was called “Humanities” is no longer of any interest…
Digital technology only reinforces these tendencies, as it allows more and more activities to be segmented into a multitude of specialized tasks, and those who have to perform these tasks are not asked to think.
As Jacques Ellul envisaged it, we are more and more destined to be only executors who lose little by little all interest in the work done. The consequence that we can observe is the resurgence of this search for meaning, which makes some people end up leaving their work…
To compensate for this growing lack of interest in professional tasks, the technician system tries to propose solutions to relieve the internal tensions created in man by the system itself. Leisure activities and consumer desires are proposed to fill the void created by the technical system.
But here too, the shortcomings observed in the organization can be found in our personal lives where performance is the watchword even in our leisure time.
If digital technology, of which I am an immoderate user, brings real facilities in our daily life, relationship with administrations, wellness/health applications and of course in our professional life, we must still ask ourselves questions.
This automation of many tasks, for example in our relationship with the administrations probably covers 80% of the usual needs, what about the remaining 20%? What about the people who do not master the computer tool, should they be relegated to the outskirts of society? Should automation be accompanied by a reduction in the number of human staff? What are the CSR impacts?
In addition to these legitimate questions, there are real concerns about the society towards which these technical and technological evolutions make us tend. Indeed, can we avoid going towards a society where (self)surveillance will be the rule, and where there will no longer be any private space? Technology allows it more and more, and in the political field, many totalitarian ideologies would see it with a good eye… In front of the climatic emergency, after the health pass, an ecological pass to authorize you or not such or such means of transport? Controlling your food purchases to restrict you on this or that product?
And the related topic of these topics, how is your data collected and who owns it? To states? To digital actors? And for what purpose? So, we come back to the crucial question of digital sovereignty, technological sovereignty (hardware or software) but also our individual sovereignty over our data. We can clearly guess the dangers of our loss of sovereignty on these subjects as well as on many others.
Another source of concern is the desire for virtualization, not to say “dematerialization” of our lives. The promised arrival of the metaverse seems to me to be quite worrying for these reasons, with two major problems in my opinion. First of all, the addictive effect that we can already observe on the classic RS. Then there is the question of the manipulation of our minds, what will be the impact of the immersive virtual on individuals cut off from reality and their environment, with the more general question, what impact on our human society as we know it. Is man made to be completely cut off from his natural environment and what will he become, one more cog in the technical system? But isn’t it already the way that we take in an unconscious way?
What prospects ?
I am rather a supporter of scientific and technological progress and of the real advances that it brings us. However, can we dispense with the reflection on the impacts that these evolutions have, not only on us, but also on our societal and natural environment? When I see that the political world plays the camp of “progress” which would be that of reason against any other form of vision, yes I am worried and I can only wonder if Jacques Ellul is not right, the technical system has become autonomous and self-growing leaving for only freedom to man the choice of the place he has the capacity to hold in this new world shaped by technology. Is this the world we wish to live in and leave to our children? Are there other alternatives? For the moment, digital technology seems to be the uncontrolled (?) gas pedal of the growth of the technical system. In order not to fall into an obscurantist alternative where all progress would be proscribed, and where the only option would remain declinism and the certainty that man is the poison of our environment, which path to choose ?