The Technological Bluff and the Victory of Futility1-8-2003
The Technological Bluff and the Victory of Futility
In the Arab world there is a deceptive vision which
believes that we possess technology as long as we use its appliances. But the
fact of the matter is that all we know is how to obey the orders which they give
us. We are not aware of their other aspect which they impose on us through the
challenges, dangers and wagers that we must face if we really want to enter the
world of technology.
Hardly a day passes without technology surprising us
with something new. Talk about the particles which make up an atom, whose
discovery was a revolution in the twentieth century, has become like talk about
living creatures which love, hate, attract and repel each other. We await news
of them like football fans await surprise results of matches. The computer,
which has entered every house without asking permission, or is used by one
member of every family, progresses by leaps and bounds which stop at no limit,
with setbacks from viruses that do not recognize medicines and rebel against it
every minute. And outer space resists the scientists who thought they owned it,
all of a sudden it rebels and mutinies, and makes fun of the technology that was
secure in its deceptive superiority and its arrogant hegemony.
The laser, that magic discovery, which began in military
industry and then in civilian life, and did not stop at the borders of medicine,
is being rediscovered in music, astronomy, space and other realms. Genetic
engineering, which began by imitating the wind pollinating flowers, ended up
with imitations of the superiority of the imagination, acting as an enemy of
nature and humanity, attacking the rights and duties of human beings and shaking
religious values. It is clear that this progress was operating according to a
law formulated 25 years ago by the researcher Jacques Ellul. Technology works
according to a geometrical progression, which means that what used to require
years to achieve scarcely takes a month or less nowadays, and maybe it will not
be long before we see it happening every day.
Today we believe in our Arab world that we have acquired
this technology! Does not everyone have a mobile telephone, have we not bought
office computers, and others that can be carried in our pockets? Have we not
established satellite television stations? And do we not shout on their screens,
causing reverberations for the world to see, or for us to laugh at ourselves?
Have we not launched our artificial satellites, by means of which we broadcast
and shout, with our own money? Have we not bought advanced weapons, including
weapons of mass destruction?
A thousand and one questions and one answer: we have
acquired the game, but we have not obtained from the seller the moral and
scientific 'catalogue' to organize our lives under the tent of technology which
we have set up in the desert of the mind imprisoned in it.
Jacques Ellul comes back to us today with a new book, in
which he tries to identify for us what he calls the Technological Bluff, so that
we may see the other side of the obvious technological truth, through three
things: challenges, risks and bets. Under the sun of technology, the West sees
Japan as a challenge, and the Third World, the world of the poor South, as a
danger, and the same Third World, under the umbrella of the bet on development
and the equal challenge to its ability to develop. If the bet means awareness of
the risks, and complete readiness to be courageous, every technological, social
or economic game has these two aspects.
But we wonder, with the author: which of the bets are
most suitable to be at the top of the list of priorities in our Arab societies?
Should we bet on technology itself, when the infrastructures still lack a great
deal, in spite of our dream that there should be a technological Silicon Valley
in our Arab world that uses our human and material resources for building our
future? I asked the scientist Dr. Ahmad Zuwail a question, when we met last
January, about his dream of establishing a technological university which
attracted us, and attracted him, shortly after he had won the Nobel Prize for
Science. What had become of that dream? His answer was that bureaucracy was
still the main obstacle to achieving this dream!
The questions repeat themselves in front of what we see
as defective in our societies. Should we bet on education? Or on energy? Or on
democracy? Technology has solutions to all that, and the risk of technological
culture is a major one. Betting on the computer in education assumes that it
will solve all our problems, but are we aware of the risks of that? And do we
have enough courage?
It is stimulating here to refer to another book, by a
strict scholar called Julian Simon, entitled Population and Development in Poor
Countries: The Ultimate Resource. I used to think before that the world is going
through a crisis because of its population explosion and scarcity of resources,
as statistics say, studies expose, and (scientific) articles raise alarm,
getting banner headlines in the press from time to time. But Simon believes that
the food problem in the world does not lie there, that there are new
agricultural lands, and agriculture will expand according to need. Natural
resources are unlimited, the future of energy is bright and there is no
pollution! Water and air now are cleaner than they were in the year 1850!
The bluff which Julian Simon is trying to refute, and
which Jacques Ellul mentions, is that all the probable estimated reserves of
petroleum, copper, iron, coal and other minerals are wrong estimates, and the
limits of the estimates is a false idea. What are the limits of pollution? And
what are the limits of the estimated reserves of copper? If we divide the
reserve of an oil well, that does not make us able to measure the number of
wells in the whole world. The same goes for atomic energy (which cannot be not
depleted), indeed, he goes on to mention the energy sources that exist on other
We see that this is the first of technology s bluffs. It
is looking for certainty, when there is no certainty in the world. If Simon
observes the uninterrupted fall in grain prices during the twentieth century,
which confirms that the supply of rain is always plentiful, does that mean that
famines are diminishing? And that the heirs of those who are dying of hunger in
front of us every day will find enough to eat tomorrow?
The other bluff is the duality of technologies, perhaps
because all kinds of technological progress have their costly price. While in
many of our Arab countries we used to face the disappearance of basic
commodities like sugar, wool, cotton, metals and oil, their replacement with
substitute synthetic substances may threaten, or even destroy, the economies of
these countries. Have not the convoys of giant trucks which cross the African
Sahara not destroyed the major part of the economics of the caravans of the
southern Sahara tribes? And have giant aircraft not destroyed the economics of
wooden ships which used to transport goods and foodstuffs in most bays of the
world and in the harbors of poor countries?
The bluffs go on with the problems that technical
progress raises, and that may be greater than the problems which they solve! We
are not calling for a return to the past, nor are we opposed to science and its
development. Who can imagine such a return to the past? But the basis of
technology makes us accept for problems to increase, because the harmful effects
of technology cannot be separated from the beneficial effects. The atomic bomb
is a result of research in the subject of the atom, research that could have
remained peaceful if human nature were not inclined to use evil instead of good.
The improvement of public health, the elimination of the old form of colonialism
and the accelerated medical discoveries have all had good effects, accompanied
by the population explosion, the loss of resources and the spread of
unemployment in the world.
In the case of one of the most polluting French
factories, the surrounding area has become one of the most dangerous areas for
grazing land. This has led to cattle dying off there. The people in charge found
that paying compensation to their owners was less expansive than establishing a
more complicated system to get rid of the pollution. The technological problems
which arise are seen only by experts. Consequently public opinion is not
affected negatively by them. Everybody is looking for the bright side only.
But we see that the most dangerous thing that is being
presented to us in the honey of technology is the poison of futility. If
futility in art and literature, as demonstrated in works like those of Albert
Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Eugene Ionescu and Samuel Becket, represent a (human)
reaction to the world after the wars, after the philosophies, after the
traditional forms, and after the political climate had paved the way for that,
in the shadow of the Nazi occupation and the domination of the Gestapo, and the
impotence of resistance. This explains the philosophy of futility at that time,
which did not find a cue even in the liberation, after losing reason, logic and
order behind the barbed wire of the concentration camps, and the light of the
intellect had died in the darkness of the dungeons. Technological futility
today is a completely different matter. Should we describe in as a legalization
of chaos? It makes everything protracted, and leaves the doors open to anything.
We do not have our freedom in confronting technology, nor can we as free people
say no to probing the depths of space, even if the dangers of this increase and
spaceships are destroyed. Nor can we say no to genetic engineering, even if it
is contrary to customs and values. Thus we feel despair we human beings at this
impotence and demoralization, because we have an awareness even if it is vague
of the dangers of all that.
The world of advanced technology, in which 30% of the
world s inhabitants live, owns 95% of the world s wealth. Accordingly our
backward South world only obtains increasing misery which is represented by
extremely rapid population growth, increasing poverty, and the widening of the
technology gap between its countries and that advanced world. Political,
military and material aid has not succeeded in dealing with this imbalance and
closing the gap. Indeed, as we have noticed in more than one aspect, they have
been preludes to a greater imbalance in future, more destruction and more
But whoever wakes up to what is happening in this Third
World of ours can scarcely find a justification for all the forms of the
consumer phenomenon that is spreading in the arteries of our societies. The
question is: why do we only find ourselves in this world filled with
instruments, toys and technological tricks which are of no benefit and which we
could do without. Jacques Ellul wonders: after the invention of the Concord
(which was stopped recently because of the inflation of its operating costs and
the dwindling number of people using it), which saved four whole hours in the
length of the journey across the Atlantic, what did people do with those hours
that were saved? Did they think of carrying out a new chemical experiment? Did
they begin to write a symphony? Or and this closer to the truth do they now
envoy the freedom to travel without any aim thanks to these hours they saved?
The time available does not represent real values unless
it is to save a wounded person, to join a dear friend, or to attend a decisive
meeting. These are infrequent, rare occasions.
Haste in itself has become the basic value, and people
have forgotten the reason for haste. Modern life pushes us to run panting after
an aircraft, after the television stations, telephone receivers and all the
gadgets thanks to which life has become pressure. The author does not deny
progress, but he denies that this should be called progress.
Natural needs are no longer the aim (like the need to
eat in order to satisfy hunger). Thanks to the technological bluff, new needs
have arisen, and the technological explosion is trying to create these needs
without stopping, to justify its existence, assert its presence and finance its
future. The new needs multiply, some of them to compensate for the destruction
of traditional systems, like spending on nature, communications, means of
travel, and leisure time. The most dangerous are those needs which the desires
for happiness arouse, like the desire for longevity, and the desire to continue
physical enjoyment without end.
There are also the desire to reproduce by artificial
means and the desire to transfer the cinema into the home through giant screens,
and many other things which we see every day.
These are new needs, which everyone claims were latent
in the human imagination, and have found the solutions to their problems through
The quartz watches which never stop and show us the
exact time, and whose performance only alters by a few seconds every hundred
years, do not make us go to meetings on time, nor do they make it easier for us
to get up early. There is no point in them except for sailors, who measure their
location with them. But they come with accessories and additional uses for
marketing: an attractive tune which we can change, a calculator sometimes, a
date chart to calculate birthdays, and a counter to calculate the days since
birth. Who among us believes that all this is really important?
Look at a television with a flat screen, which prevents
the slight distortion resulting from the curve of a traditional screen. The
author asks whether we are so infatuated with art, and so concerned with
aesthetics that we cannot tolerate any slight distortion of a picture? The same
applies to the new compact discs, which require us to throw away all old
records, and have given us a new consumer world that is inexhaustible, and of
course like all the tricks of the technological bluff it has its exorbitant
Now we have dishes to receive satellites from countries
of east and west, and countries whose place we hardly know how to find on a map
or their languages, but they have their channels. Do we really need to watch
their programs? There are also video cassette recorders that allow you to watch
what you have missed, without that meaning that you will go without your fixed
hours for watching.
The same futility applies to cars. Statistics
demonstrate that speed is the cause of accidents and death, and that the number
of victims increases by an average of 6% for every additional six miles an hour
of speed. But the technological bluff is going ahead with its error and
inventing higher speeds each year, and techniques that help to launch one
towards death in a car containing a gadget to reveal the gender, and record the
pressure of the tires, a probe to show other cars passing, electronic keys,
sensitive lighting, an electronic memory for the positions of the driver s seat
and the one next to him, and a monitor to compare our speed from one day to
another. In spite of that, it does not protect out driver infatuated with speed
from certain death.
This technological excessiveness leads to extravagance
and waste. We are not talking about a personal whim or individual attitude, so
much as the fate of a society and the future of a nation. Wasting the worker who
is standing by a photocopying machine, by making ten copies of a document when
only one copy is needed, does not represent the inclination of an individual as
much as a beginning of consumption that exceeds capacity and outstrips
resources. The reason is that technology has provided him with a copier that
gives him hundreds of copies in a short time by pressing a button. But the
philosophy that requires this technology to be used only in what is useful is
technological frivolity itself.
A few years ago we only needed a home telephone with one
or two lines. Now all members of the family and even the servants working for
them have their own telephones in their pockets. Communications budgets which
are almost unbelievable have been added to every Arab home, merely because
technology has made this service easy, the bluff!
Companies competed with each other to offer a mobile
cellular telephone of which a new model comes out every few months, to send
electronic messages, photographs and songs. The aim of a telephone is no longer
what it used to be twenty years ago. It has become one of the games of the
technological bluff, the game which both children and adults play. They find in
playing frivolously with it the summit of technology. They believe that they are
controlling technology and using it according to their wishes and interests.
If we are talking with this vehemence about the meaning
of that in our world, no one is comparing what we have with what Japan has.
True, the principle in Japan is widespread use of the most modern machines, and
true that Japan has an incredible number of robots (which make their daily
life), and that they have the fastest trains in the world. But we should not
forget that unemployment is almost non-existent in Japan. And we should also not
forget that the standard of living is high, and that in spite of their narrow
geographical area and high population density, they have found technological
solutions to deal with overcrowding. So it is not correct to measure as an
absolute pattern. We must see its positive aspects before we imitate its
customs, which become frivolity when they cross its borders.
Like any country connected by the technology of
communications in the whole world, we now have a flood of data coming in through
artificial satellites, information networks, cables and news agencies: millions
of precise data. They are data directed at us by the producers of information
with the aim of influencing us, so that we respond to them, by actions of
purchasing, for example. But how much of these data do we use, and how much of
them benefit us? We have no connection at all with 999 out of every thousand of
these data, according to Jacques Ellul. But they attack us whenever we turn our
gaze. They want to influence us, control our feelings, determine our desires and
invade our consciousness and the dwelling place of our imagination, even to
change our behavior so that we adopt attitudes different to those of our
upbringing and those established in our visual and cognitive heritage.
But the fact is that this flood of information which
technology is distributing way goes past aimlessly, because the unconnected
nature of this flood of artificial data, which we receive every day, is in need
of logic and linkage in an overall manner. This information invasion only makes
us averse to the information itself.
We throw into the ordinary and the electronic refuse bin
the advertising massages that reach us, without opening them, and whoever does
open them scarcely remembers anything of them. It is difficult for them to
remain in the memory because they are not co-ordinated or connected. Being
difficult to remember makes them prisoners of the refuse bin, always. This gives
us a marginalized and distorted image of the world.
We will follow up on the television screen what modern
technology has helped to convey to us, by direct transmission: a battle here, a
coup d etat there, a famine in the south and a flood in the north, an earthquake
that hits the east, and a fire that destroys in the west. The final outcome is
that thinking about all that does not take place logically. The second event
wipes out the effect of the first event, the images of the third event wipe out
whatever the viewer has seen before, and the filmed report on the fourth event
covers over what came in that context. If a nuclear accident in the past makes
us question the usefulness of nuclear programs, today we will be content with
following up the news of the black clouds resulting from this nuclear chaos,
until a fresh news item comes. And so they go on hand in hand the flood of
information with the culture of forgetfulness, and nausea.
This copious information only provides a blind life and
dumb facts without roots which remain firmly in consciousness or memory. But
what is more dangerous in this deluge of information, as it comes from the
technological bluff , is that it makes us compulsive consumers, and it is not
enough here to repeat the condemnation of the consumer society.
The fact is that there is no information through
television, rather it is television only. Facts and events only become news if
television reports them. It happens that a certain event and the news of a
particular area arouse our enthusiasm for several successive weeks, and the same
pictures are shown to us time and again. We get excited about what is happening
to our people in Palestine, or our brothers in Somalia, Iraq and Algeria, but
that disappears, and the curtain of forgetfulness is lowered on it, for other
pictures and other news to replace it. Pictures erase pictures, pictures of the
good and pictures of the bad. The television has to change them so that it does
not become boring. The importance of a question ends when the television stops
dealing with it. The television does not broadcast information, information
broadcasts the television. We are successful in the role of consumer, and even
our children who are following the television only find entertaining programs on
it full of violence and excitement in all its forms, the material and direct,
and the concealed and malignant. They turn away from it in distaste if suddenly
a program with an educational touch appears.
The fact is that when we become consumers of information
and this is what is happening we become incapable of being decision-makers. The
inhabitants of remote areas or suburbs are compelled to use cars. The consumer
has lost any authority to choose or take a decision. He is surrounded by rivers
of information, under his feet are oceans of data, and technology does not stop
live and direct transmission of this information.
Information is drowning the consumer, until he finds
that the only straw of salvation is to respond to some of it. And no sooner is
it apparent that his choice was a mistake than a new technological need and
futility emerges. The fact is that technology has given us a great deal, but it
has taken away from us the initiative to think of our own needs and priorities.
With it we have lost tranquility and security, and maybe satisfaction. If we do
not have a method to deal with that, we will be mere victims of the
But if the rejection of technology is a deception, the
greatest deception is to believe that by consuming it we have come to possess
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