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The 'god' we have made of technology

A man who lives in Aix-en-Provence, France, wrote to me recently after he somehow came across this 2010 column that I wrote for The National Catholic Reporter.

Technology-godIn it (and in this blog post from 2019) I wrote about the late French Reformed theologian Jacques Ellul, whose work includes my all-time favorite book about hope, Hope in Time of Abandonment.

My French correspondent, Joël Decarsin, who is committed to promoting Ellul's work in his country, wanted me to know that he thinks Ellul also has a terrifically important message about technology. And having read some of what Decarsin has written about that, I agree with him.

It will come as no surprise to you that a French man who lives in France mostly writes in French. So if you'd like to read something Decarsin wrote in which he mentioned Ellul, here's a recent column in pdf form: Download Victoire de Trump.

In the article, Decarsin tries to update Ellul's thought. Indeed, he believes that social networks contribute to devaluing considerably the notion of truth. In these conditions, for example, he argues that the ecological fight, as important as it is, becomes secondary. After all, he asks, "what is the use of affirming that the planet is in danger if, more and more, the militant positions are disguised by conspiracy theories?"

But Decarsin, who identifies as Catholic, also sent me some of his writing in English about Ellul and Ellul's thoughts about technology. Here's a quote from that: Ellul, he writes, "devoted his life to demonstrating that technology had changed its status during the 20th century: it could no longer be considered as a set of means to an end, it had become a supreme end. If humans boasted 'we don't stop progress,' it was not because they didn't want it to stop, but because they were literally incapable of regulating it, simply because they unconsciously made it sacred.

"Out of intellectual laziness or, more exactly, because there is no one more deaf than the one who does not want to
hear, they have understood nothing of Ellul's demonstration and. . .have rejected his conclusions, namely that technology has become an autonomous phenomenon, and therefore uncontrollable."

Decarsin asks Christians a question that has deep echoes of the question that Jesus asked his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" That question from Decarsin, channeling Ellul, is: "And you, what do you say that technology is?"

Wording it like that is one way to call attention to Ellul's insight (and charge) that humanity has sacralized technology, meaning that we value it in a way that resembles worship. We rely on it for the way we live. Technology, indeed, has acquired the status of something to be worshiped.

Technology now controls us much more than we control technology. I, for instance, am bound to it if I want what I write to be read. Yes, beyond my books, I could write on paper using a pen or pencil (an early form of technology) but even then I would need the technology of a duplicating machine of some sort if my words were to be read by more than one person.

As I write these words, I have just returned from taking my printer to a fix-it shop because the cartridge carriage jammed up tight. I say "printer," but it's also my scanner and copier and without it my work is made much more difficult. (The printer, it turns out, has died and so I immediately replaced it because, well, I need a printer/scanner/copier to do my work -- a position an earlier [and much better and more famous] writer named William, Mr. Shakespeare -- never was in.)

So what do we call something on which we depend for the way we live and work? Some kind of god is not too strong an answer, Ellul would say, I think. And what is the first of the Ten Commandments? That we should have no gods but God.

I don't quite know how to get out of this mess of somehow worshiping technology. But I do know the first step is to recognize the way in which we have sacralized it.

(The image here today came from here.)

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I have been to the Israeli site on the west bank of the Jordan River where, tradition says, Jesus was baptized. It's interesting in the way that a lot of such sites in the Holy Land are interesting in that they recall an event in history but there's often precious little historical proof that whatever event being commemorated actually took place on that exact site. Still, Jordan has decided to raise $300 million "to develop the officially recognized site of Jesus Christ's baptism located on the east bank of the Jordan River," this Voice of America story reports what first was reported by The Washington Post. For me, all this raises this question: "What would Jesus buy if he had $300 million?" I feel confident in saying that he'd spend none of it on developing a tourism site to commemorate his own baptism. Not one cent of it.


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