“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.”
-Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society (1964)
We live in a world so connected, so fast, and so efficient. We live in a world where I can send encouraging messages halfway around the world to my church college students during their time of exams. We live in a world where we can order our coffee on our phone and it awaits us moments later on the counter of Starbucks, leaving to imagination, the who, when, how of its manufacture. We live in a world where the game of phone stack could be one of the hardest challenges faced. We live in a world where music is seen in increments of bits and the art of the album has been long buried in the past. We live in a world where in some parts of the globe it’s easier to access wifi than clean water. We live in a world where the appearance given to us by our parents are suggestions or the template for the surgical artisans to shape into their modern Mona Lisa’s.
But technology is not the problem. Even Ellul, in the quote above, was not indicting technology, per se, but was speaking of “technique”. He defines it as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” To put concisely, Ellul is saying that “technique” has converted spontaneity and unreflective behavior into behaviors that are only deliberate and rationalized. We’ve become obsessed with results and our prime concern becomes the best way in our life direction. In other words, the technical eclipses the organic, if you will. Perhaps, we see this played out in the sliver of economic life in Goudzwaard’s assessment of capitalism’s obsession with progress.
Setting aside Ellul’s ‘technical’ analysis, all of us sense that this world is in a rush. Time is measured by the second, and waiting for a friend has become obsolete through the invention of the cell phone (or as Koreans endearingly say ‘handphone’). Life is faster and we don’t have to wait. We are impatient because our muscle for patience is unpracticed.
But along with time, there is also space. The technical affects the shape of the world we live in; it even molds the shape we are as humans with personalities, souls, and bodies. Could it be that we are also becoming more impatient because we are so practiced in molding our world rather than being molded by the world? Our desire for independence, autonomy, whatever you want to call it, lends our hearts toward impatience. When we cannot create the world we envision or strive to shape, we grow impatient, sometimes even angry. When encountering people who do not fit into the world that we have created for ourselves, we don’t have the patience to change our world to welcome them in. Rather we are agitated, and further, we ostracize. Our impatience wants to change the other instead.
Then, is it a matter of practicing our moldability muscles? Perhaps, but not entirely. The irony of Ellul’s quote is it is saying that we are controlled, that is, molded by technique. Our problem is not only that our will to change ourselves has atrophied. Ellul is alluding that we are always being molded, ourselves, our world. The question is ‘by what’ or ‘by whom?’
It’s Christmas tomorrow and, whether you are on the East or West of the Greenwich meridian, at Christmas you tell the truth. Sorry, couldn’t help it. No, but seriously tell the truth to your loved ones, but in addition, enjoy extravagance. Not utility, not efficiency, nor progress, but sheer lavish extravagance. Waste time with your loved ones, don’t plan, don’t rush, but be among them. Further, be molded by one another’s desires, one another’s wills (within reason of course). Do what you may not prefer for the sake of the other. Mold your desires to another’s. Because at Christmas we remember lavish extravagance. God came to earth to give us eternal life, but he also molded himself, if you will, into a human baby. He molded his will and desires, to allow us to do the same for others.