For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration
Human Flourishing and Technology: What Frames What?

Human Flourishing and Technology: What Frames What?

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Of late, I’ve had occasion to turn again to the work of Jacques Ellul, the 20th century French scholar and lay theologian, regarded by some as the most prolific and insightful Christian social critic of the last century.

Specifically, I was reminded of his critique of what he called “technical humanism” by the recent discussions of both the documentary The Social Dilemma and the Center for Humane Technology with which the film is associated. Several individuals connected with the center, former Google employee Tristan Harris most prominent among them, appear in the documentary about the social ills of social media. 

Writing in The Technological Society, which was first published in 1954, Ellul noted that “the claims of the human being have thus come to assert themselves to a greater and greater degree in the development of techniques; this is known as 'humanizing the techniques.’” But Ellul, who had up to that point in his book gone to great lengths to demonstrate how technique had thoroughly captured society, was not impressed.

Ellul defined technique as “the totality of methods, rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” Ellul understood that what mattered most about modern technology was not any one artifact or system, but rather a way of being in the world. This form of life or fundamental disposition precedes, sustains, and is reinforced by the material technological order. 

When we consider the question of human flourishing, we do well to ask, as Dr. Horner has taught us so well, “What frames what?” What sets the terms for what counts as human flourishing? Today, there are many examples of new devices, apps, and tools that promise to help us lead healthier lives, make better decisions, find peace of mind, and much more besides. But these technologies, seemingly designed with our good in mind, do little to change the status quo that rendered them necessary. Would we need mindfulness apps if we weren’t already living in a sea of digitally mediated distraction? Would we need to count our steps if we lived in places built at a more human scale and which invited walking or held jobs that did not involve sitting endlessly behind a screen. Rarely is there an effort to ask what is good for the human being as such. Instead, as Ellul already recognized more than half a century ago, the real concern is to keep the human component of the larger technological order working marginally well, even if that larger order is fundamentally inhospitable to human beings.

So, for example, Ellul went on to observe that if we seek the “real reason” for humanizing technology “we hear over and over again that there is ‘something out of line’ in the technical system, an insupportable state of affairs for a technician. A remedy must be found." 

But, Ellul invites us to ask, “What is out of line?” “According to the usual superficial analysis,” Ellul answers, “it is man that is amiss. The technician thereupon tackles the problem as he would any other. But he considers man only as an object of technique and only to the degree that man interferes with the proper function of the technique.”

In other words, he continued, “Technique reveals its essential efficiency in discerning that man has a sentimental and moral life. These factors are, for technique, human and subjective; but if means can be found to act upon them, to rationalize them and bring them into line, they need not be a technical drawback. Of course, man as such does not count.”

This humanizing of technology presumes the existing techno-social status quo and ultimately serves its interests. It only amounts to a recalibration of the person so that they may fit all the more seamlessly into the operations of the existing techno-economic order of things. That techno-economic order is itself rarely questioned; it is taken mostly for granted, the myth of inevitability covering a multitude of sins.

I’m not sure we can say that contemporary proponents of humane technology reason precisely by this logic. But neither do I think that they avoid ending up in much the same place, practically speaking. Consider the proliferation of devices and apps, some of which the Center for Humane Technology promotes, which are designed to gather data about everything from our steps to our sleep habits in order to help us optimize, maximize, manage, or otherwise finely calibrate our bodies and our minds. The calibration becomes necessary because the rhythms and patterns of our industrialized and digitized world have proven to be inhospitable to human well-being, while, nonetheless, alleviating certain forms of suffering. One might say that while, for many, although certainly not all, modern technological society has managed to supply various material needs, it has been less adept at meeting many of our non-material needs. And it would be a serious mistake to imagine that only our material needs mattered. So now the same techno-economic forces present themselves as the solution to the problems they have generated. In Ellul’s terms, the answer to problems generated by technique is the application of ever more sophisticated and invasive techniques. The more general technological milieu is never challenged, and there’s very little by way of a robust account of what human flourishing might look like independent of the present technological milieu. 

“It seems impossible to speak of a technical humanism,” Ellul concluded after some further discussion of the matter. It was more likely, in his view, that human beings would simply be forced to adapt to the shape of the technological system. “The whole stock of ideologies, feelings, principles, beliefs, etc. that people continue to carry around and which are derived from traditional situations,” these Ellul believed would only be conceived as unfortunate idiosyncrasies to be eliminated so that the techno-economic system may operate ever more efficiently. “It is necessary (and this is the ethical choice!) to liquidate all such holdovers,” he continued sarcastically, “and to lead humanity to a perfect operational adaptation that will bring about the greatest possible benefit from the technique. Adaptation becomes a moral criterion.”

Now, while readers of The Technological Society would be forgiven for assuming that Ellul was overly fatalistic, providing neither a path forward nor any measure of hope, that was not exactly true. It’s just that Ellul intended for readers to engage the whole of his corpus (over 40 books!) and read his sociological works in dialectic tension with his theological reflections, in which Kierkegaard and the Swiss theologian Karl Barth loom large. One might even say that, in this expectation, Ellul was, in fact, overly optimistic! In any case, he did make an argument for the value freedom as it arises out of a condition of perceived necessity presented by contemporary technology. It was precisely against the background of necessity that freedom could exist.

To one interviewer he said, “I would say two things to explain the tenor of my writings. I would say … that as long as men believe that things will resolve themselves, they will do nothing on their own. But when the situation appears to be absolutely deadlocked and tragic, then men will try and do something.”

Seen in this light, Ellul’s work was an effort not simply to instruct but also to provoke. And it is to provoke us toward the realization of a measure of freedom available only when we fully reckon with the reality that opposes it.

I would only add this note in closing. We ought to understand freedom as having two dimensions: freedom from and freedom for. Too often we fail to consider that freedom is fully realized only when it is conceived not only as a freedom from restraint, but also as a freedom to fulfill a deeper calling toward which freedom itself is but a penultimate means. The two are related but not identical. What Ellul would have us see is that the modern technological order tends to promise the former while simultaneously eroding the latter.

Mike Sacasas
Associate Director

Surgimiento y Desarrollo del Movimiento Internacional de ...

Study Center Resources

Our spring program is in full swing this month. Dr. Horner and Mike Sacasas are each teaching director’s classes. If you receive this newsletter in your inbox, then you are also receiving the audio from those classes.

We also have two reading groups in progress. The Dante reading group is completing its journey through the Divine Comedy with Paradiso, and our Monday evening reading group will be discussing the second half of Alan Jacobs’s Breaking Bread With the Dead at its next meeting on February 15th.

Finally, Mike Sacasas will be presenting the first of three lecture on the work of Ivan Illich next Wednesday, February 10th at 8PM. The talk will be offered as a Zoom webinar and you can learn more about the series and register for the lecture here.

If you have any questions about our program, please contact Mike at

Recommended Reading

— Timothy Larsen on “Why George MacDonald Matters”:

To this day, readers often find Phantastes to be a deeply strange novel. Nevertheless, we are steadied and orientated by all the fantasy literature that has grown out of it like realist novels suddenly animated by magic. We have Tolkien, but Tolkien only had MacDonald and his followers. To put the point bluntly, no MacDonald, no Tolkien.  It is still a curious book, but as it was the starting point of something new, Phantastes was immeasurably weirder for its original readers.  

— A helpful introduction to the work of Jacques Ellul from David Gill, “Jacques Ellul: The Prophet as Theologian.”

For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration
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