French social critic Jacques Ellul is born. He will become a thoughtful skeptic who worries about the negative impact of technology on the human condition.
wore many hats: sociologist, philosopher, humanist, theologian, law professor. He studied the work of Karl Marx and embraced a good deal of Marxist theory, which he did not consider in conflict with his religious beliefs. The son of an atheist father and Christian mother
(.pdf), he was raised without religious training. He became a Christian at 22, and his strong faith — Ellul defined himself as a Christian universalist — underpinned all his work.
In his cosmopolitan family, Ellul grew up with a distrust of statism, which partially explains his attraction to Marx. His dislike of the state did not prevent him, however, from taking an active role in the French Resistance during World War II.
He was the rare French intellectual who remained a provincial all his life. He did not beeline it for Paris, as most of his contemporaries did, choosing instead to remain in the seaport town of Bordeaux, where he was born. He was a professor at the university there for most of his career.
Ellul's ambivalence toward technology
was grounded in large part in his religious and social convictions. He believed that "technological tyranny," represented by the increasing encroachment of modern technology into our private lives, posed a threat to both human freedom and faith.
He wrote widely on the subject, including the 1964 book, The Technological Society
, which is considered his most important work. Ellul was not critical of technology per se, but with the ways it is used by some to impose their will on others. He was especially critical of the mass media, which he believed is completely manipulated by powerful and generally antagonistic special interests.
It is the emergence of mass media which makes possible the use of propaganda techniques on a societal scale. The orchestration of press, radio and television to create a continuous, lasting and total environment renders the influence of propaganda virtually unnoticed, precisely because it creates a constant environment. Mass media provides the link between the individual and the demands of the technological society.
One has to wonder what Ellul, who died in 1994, would have made of the internet's long reach.
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