How Are We Doing?

An Introduction to Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society

Anyone who’s grown up watching football has seen it. Now though, in both NFL and college football, hot dogging has been outlawed. A few years ago, in fact, the Cleveland Browns even lost a game because of one of their players got a penalty for hot dogging after a play. These hot dogging rules are of relatively recent vintage, the crime being excessive celebration after a big play.

I’ve always thought it would be fun to make a short satirical film with some over-the-top hot dogging by everyone involved. The quarterback throws a pass and starts doing back flips because it’s on target. The receiver catches it and starts dancing. The cornerback wings him and starts hot dogging for his tackle. The ref throws a flag and then starts celebrating for having made the call. The camera swings up into the announcer’s booth and Al Michaels is high fiving everyone for the way he called it.

Bottom line: hot dogging was getting pretty annoying.

Here’s something else I’ve found annoying.

I’m talking about those “How are we doing?” follow-up emails, phone calls and text messages that occur after we make a transaction. It’s not only intrusive but half the time I wonder how much they really care.

I received an email from one company with 15 questions about the 30 second transaction I’d had with them, beginning with the question, “Did they address you by name?” I don’t remember, and I honestly don’t care.

What’s interesting is that many people foresaw these customer service techniques more than half a century ago. One such visionary was French philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul, author of The Technological Society.

In Robert K. Merton’s foreword to the book he writes, “Ellul’s subject comes close to giving the reader a sense of what the dominance of technique might mean for the present and future of man. In short… The Technological Society requires us to examine anew what the author describes as the essential tragedy of a civilization increasingly dominated by technique.” And that is what annoys me.

When Ellul addresses technology, he isn’t simply referring to machines. He’s also talking about technique as applied to sales and customer service and even employer/employee relations. The sum total of everything is to leave humanity de-humanized. Or, as he puts it in his notes to the reader, “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”

The common denominator in Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 and C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength was their future vision of de-humanized mankind. The forms of society differed but the net outcome was common, a non-thinking, emotionally flat, easily managed will-less humanity. In Lewis’ book this antithesis of man was called the unman.

Twice this week I had dealings with my cell phone company. Twice they texted me afterwards to ask how their customer service was. Twice I was annoyed and did not reply. The banks do it, too. My internet service provider sends an email after I make a call because my service was interrupted.

Nowadays we have techniques for making decisions, techniques for handling difficult customers, techniques for “closing the sale,” techniques for being better dressed, techniques for appearing to care when we’re listening, and techniques for meeting people of the opposite sex. And though we call it “spin” now, there are techniques for manipulating the masses by means of the media.

Efficiency, per se, is not always a bad thing. We all hate inefficient meetings, for example. But when it becomes an ultimate value that negates everything else, including common sense, we have a problem.

Here are a few comments from reviews and reviewers:

“With monumental calm and maddening thoroughness he goes through one human activity after another and shows how it has been technicized — rendered efficient — and diminished in the process…. “
Paul Pickrel, Harper’s

“The Technological Society is one of the most important books of the second half of the twentieth century. In it, Jacques 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

“Whether you agree or disagree with Ellul, he will cause you to question the influence of technology on your life. Without doubt the drive for efficiency (the ultimate law of technology) impacts all our relationships — with our families, our neighbors, our communities, our friends, and our government.”
A reviewer named Joyce

To counteract all this, it’s more important than ever that we treat one another like people, and not simply go through the motions. We ourselves will become more human this way.

How are you doing?

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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