Victims of our own Enthusiasms: Technique and Jaques Ellul

Jacques Ellul described his central concept of ‘technique’ as being:

 “…the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”

He was concerned here with organisation – particularly with the organisation of society, of technology and of the ways of doing business we pursue – and the consequent levels of deleterious effect on people like us arising out of these kinds of organisation.

Simply put, Ellul saw well that the applications of what he calls ‘technique’ in areas like the means of production and distribution; the financial and economic methods in use; the laws and the regulations we are bound by and subscribe to; are, as ways of doing things, harmful to our societies and to our lives.

For the most part and in affluent societies most of this harm takes the form of constraints and deprivations of freedoms and capabilities.  The case for populations in non-affluent societies, in regard to how peoples there are adversely affected by technique as it is being used in affluent countries, is more tangible and more greatly pronounced in the forms of physical constraint and physical deprivation.  Nonetheless and moreover – no-one wins out of it; not even the affluent law makers and captains of industry and government members.

I want to add that technique is used inthe way it it is, because it has become necessary for it to be used as it is, and that we are locked-into a self-fulfilling inevitability for further development which has arisen out of the paths we chose as nations and individuals way back in the early the days of industrialisation.  My argument then will be circular, in that the rise of these Shibboleths of ‘technique’ so for to become the standard, accepted, ways of doing things – the open markets, the ownerships of capital and labour, even our representative democracy, our debt, credit and interest arrangements, and so on – their powerful grip has locked us into certain consequences arising from them as forms of social, political and economic organisation.  These consequences demonstrate that technique, as Ellul denominates it,  being applied and carried out automatedly without further thought by us in and as its own justification and for its own sake.

The simile I want to use to help covey what I mean concerns an item of baggage packed for a trip abroad and locked by a lock at the top when zipped up.  The trip is our life-journey as we and our societies head towards what is to come in future. Like all trips, it was booked some time back and the arrangements for it put in place – ticket, seat, destination, departure point, hotel, and so on.  The item of baggage was packed well previous to the trip also; and its contents zippered and locked up some time before the trip actually began.

Now most trips these days go ahead and pass fairly well as much as they were planned to pass  – lost baggage and in-flight disruptions are in recent years largely managed down to a minimum by carriers. And unless there arises a serious problem – like an engine shut down – equating in our simile to a major war breaking out or a natural disaster of magnitude occurring in the world, then our futures in general, like our trip on an airplane, are mapped out fairly well in broad terms in respect of how they are going to flow.

The baggage we packed is zippered and locked up – there are no changes in and no access to its contents whist the air journey is taking place – thus the contents in it are fixed.  Lots of contingent things might happen on a trip – coffee spilt; stormy weather; a diversion; toilet blocked; movie great; a good sleep – are amongst the myriad things possible, even likely. But the contents of the baggage are fixed and shut in the hold; and thereabouts are isolated and not able to be tampered with.

This item of baggage – in our simile – includes amongst other things our legacy means of doing technique, of organising ourselves in society, and with these are also carried in the bag their inevitable consequences and effects that arise inevitably out of these means.

Let us call these consequences attitudes, laws, rights, obligations, regulations, duties, conventions, conformities, traditions, all clustered around and governed by the forms of technique which give rise to them; the monthly credit card payoff, the monthly visit for a prescription medicine, the daily getting the kids ready for school, the school run in the car; the car’s servicing due soon, and so on. These small daily obligations and routines are shaped and necessitated by the way technique is being applied to our lives and so life, our life, is being organised even in our narrow localities and events.

(I was born and brought up in Tottenham, North London. As a youth I would travel by train to work. Every morning for five years I stood on the platform beside a man with a cloth cap a brown mackintosh and a pipe smoking.  I then moved away and left the area. Some twenty-five or so years later I found myself on that platform one morning again and there beside me in an older version was the cloth cap mackintosh and pipe.  Ever-after to my mind the fellow concenred represented to me a symbol of how an enslavement of uneducated working persons is imposed and organised by way of the application of what Jacques Ellul describes as technique.]

The short thesis of this article is then: that we have built a society on enthusiasms for, on an overplus faith in, science, scientific method, technological innovations, market forces, capital, regulation, law, credit, commerce, consumerism, production, including celebrity and its hero-worship; and thus historically we have placed an unwarrantable faith in these items, by believing them to be the solutions to the problems and issues we face in living our lives – problems like the getting of food and shelter, obtaining a job of work and means to live, finding entertainment and recreation, getting education and training. The ways we have elected to pursue these things like a cuckoo in a nest have grown up to rule the roost for us. They are the bedrock we laid down unwittingly and our everyday activities form their overlying strata and so are now our bed we must lay upon it.

Like Macbeth we cannot easily turn back:

‘I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er’ [Act 3]

We have organised our means and amenities of life and their procurement for our use and consumption so thoroughly that a mass consumerism has been made possible.  This consumerism in its turn has been put together in such a way as to be deeply dependent on this straightjacket technique and organisation being kept in place. The upshot, the bill, the price we have to pay for this static underlying status quo is that our own selves and our lives, in unspeakably minute detail and with close levels of control have been made themselves objects of ‘technique’ to be lived out.

Hence we are, we have made ourselves, and have colluded in making of ourselves, an organised people in every detail by way of imposing via application of technique a coercion, entailing a general management of our outlooks, of our habits, of gettingour necessities, of us having no clear alternative.  So far gone are we that not only are we unaware we are so far gone; we are so far out of the way of what would be far better, far more human and fulfilled, that we stand contained and constrained by our acquiesicence in accepting technique’s ‘mind-forged manacles’

Technique then has been hallowed and espoused by us; hyped up and bigged-up so much that even our leaders now believe it as their own propaganda. It is now so firmly and deeply embedded within us in our daily lives and in how we do things, organise things, that it is almost immovable, and for the most part it is unconsciously perceived by us as being like our ‘second nature’ – a bad unkickable habit which we retain, and think we are clean.

Just like all the product on our retailers shelves it is being sold to us, has always been being sold to us, as a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey; the apotheosis of the ages, after centuries of striving and venture by our struggling ancestors – the big payoff for our history of human ingenuity and invention:  Because you’re worth it. We are all labelled prize winners – but the prize-givers have feet of clay.

So we find ourselves a society at large which has been by its own means locked into a kind of Bedlam, a madhouse; and it is just as if it were our own selves, our essential humanity and heaven-promised ‘life in abundance’, which has been zippered up in that baggage in the airplane hold and locked up with a lock for our journey through life.

Be assured there is always a metanioa possible; a turning around; even for mile-long seagoing tankers. Any such change of direction has to do with us being helped to ‘awaken’ (see article) and with us thereafter bearing the responsibility thereby laid upon us ‘awoken’ person ready able and willing to work selflessly for the true good of others.

[NOTE: There was in recent years a UK Secret Service Agent found dead in a flat in London. He was found zippered up in an item of baggage. No satisfactory enquiry into his death was made and many observers considered this lack of due process by the authorities was deliberately allowed and that his Secret Agent career was involved in the affair. A few ‘semi-official’ putative ‘explanations’ of his demise were passed to the media to broadcast. One was that he had zipped himself in and could not free himself – a failed Houdini. Another hinted at a ‘sex-game’ which ‘had gone wrong’.  Murder was never really truly considered as an explanation. The inquest found ‘death by misadventure’]

 

Fear and Trust

For all the misgivings one has in business, and in business relationships, the bottom line for the presence of adequate peace of mind for one to continue trading or developing is, and is always: Trust.

One cannot proceed very far without it in any social interaction and especially in those business areas which set out to solve problems.  This need for trust is one reason why there are Brands; because for goods and services carrying a Brand name one knows, one has a cool idea of what one is about to get when one buys an item.

Brands, when sound and reputable, go some way towards guaranteeing a level of quality and after sales support etc. And this is one reason why counterfeiting is at bottom parasitic – because it trades upon the reputation of someone else’s goods and services. It offers no guarantee of quality or of after-sales service etc, and when a person has been hoodwinked by a counterfeiter and the product he has bought is scrap; it is the Brand name which was traded upon which tends to suffer in its reputation; and also the company who is the legitimate owner of the Brand name; irrational though this might seem?

The reason for a decline in a genuine reputation of a bona fide Brand and its company being caused by illicit traders trading upon the Brand’s repute; is the knock which is taken on the Trust in that Brand name, and to the almost complacent ready expectations one has, when one has been used to buying that Brand. Thus customers loyal to a Brand can suddenly be shaken by a bad experience with it and so no longer buy its products.

The scale of the shock and distrust escalates enormously for a person hoodwinked by products counterfeited such as medicines, and say, vehicle parts like brake shoes and tyres, because of the perceived major risks of harm which accompany taking a drug which is not approved nor bona fide; or the large risk experienced in having brake shoes or tyres fitted to one’s car when they are possibly substandard.

These considerations then, show some of the ways that trust is central to trading and to doing business.

Because we are destined to ‘live by the sweat of our brows’ we are constrained to do business so as to earn our livings.  This also means that we are compelled to have to trust others who come to us to do business with us, and also to trust those from whom we seek out business.  The default position for doing business then, necessarily has to be one of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and a prima facia openness of one’s approach to others, up to the point where that openness is no longer seen by us to be circumspect in regard to this person or that company, and so on.

There is much theology in this position in which we find ourselves, whereby we are compelled to trust in the first place; and to have to do so in a world which is often harsh and wherein many persons and groups are out for themselves without any social or moral qualifications on their relational behaviours.  We know the world is like this by reference to our own experiences; and that fortuitous remoteness of and anonymity for persons who use the Internet, make it a playground for those who thrive on catching out the unlucky; those who make some poor and regrettable decisions.  The web is brimming with scams and sharks and people who are simply of ill will or else hooked on schadenfreude.

Despite all this being the fact of the case; and despite us knowing full well that this is the fact of the case, we are compelled again and again when doing business via the Internet (and elsewhere) into and back upon that immovable default position of bona fide prima facie initial trusting of our newly met business associates.

And this is why old and returning customers and associates are so prized by us; because we know them and are able to assess any risks they might pose to us to a fairly exact extent. And now comes in a further paradox. For those who are ambitious in business old and returning customers and associates are never enough. Ambitious persons are always seeking new business and new business opportunities, which means necessarily meeting and doing more and more business with untested persons.

In addition it is the ambitious person who is most likely to be tempted to pick up a missed opportunity even when knowing it is to the cost of a competitor for him to do so; or else to be tempted to even less upright business practices as being convenient and expedient short cuts to wealth and position. (I discount from this generalisation the motivations of persons in dire straits or grasping at straws because they are say going insolvent, whose bad behaviour might be ameliorated by their obvious distress)

The paradox here is then that in the normal course of doing business it is the most ambitious who expose themselves to higher risk levels and are compelled to offer prima facie trust the most and most often; whereas the business person who is happy to earn and to live comfortably without great expectations exposes himself to less risk and is compelled to place less prima facie trust down than an ambitious person is compelled to. And so it is that the least trustworthy, the ambitious, are taught by experience that trust is an essential for them to be able to advance towards the orders of magnitude they desire.

Of course in here steps The Law; on the side of and in support of higher risk takers who meet with foul play against their businesses. The Law is then an arbiter of fair play which may be called into action by an aggrieved party in order for that party to attempt redress for what has been essentially an (alleged) breach of trust by an associate or client.  It is at bottom a breach of trust always; and it is always based upon the breach of the holy commandment: ‘Do as you would be done unto’.

John Milton:

‘Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden , till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse…..’

I quote Robert Burns also (back on the subject of Law):

‘Courts for cowards were erected

Churches built to please the priest

A fig for those by Law protected

Liberty’s a glorious feast!’

It is no co-incidence that ambitious persons and businesses are those who most frequently use the law and its courts so as to defend their positions against rivals and against swindlers and thieves.  Not only are they normally those who are most exposed to risks like these we are presently discussing; they as business entities present the best pickings for the scammer or for the counterfeiter, since – as we have pointed out elsewhere – the big guys and their companies go to extreme lengths to present a perfect and seamless front-end image and marketing regime to their multitudes of customers. Their Brands are thus considered some of the most stable, lucrative and sound in the world because of this window dressing of theirs; and damage when done to their Brands is some big bad news for them.

So the Law is from one angle a kind of backstop for the risk takers by it deterring and chastising those who would do to them ill for gain. The Law is the inferno one has to invoke and through which one must go so as to purge oneself by condemning one’s enemies to its raging fire.

Law in this case then is artificial and put in place to be evoked so as to take the place of trust whenever trust has been lost by a breach or by an abuse of business practice and of normative rules. But Trust in its pro tem prima facie default position remains the natural value by which day to day business is oiled and with which its engines run for the most part reasonably smoothly.

Trust and placing trust, especially in an unknown person or business and being under constraint to do so – this can be very stressful. The only solace at this time of initial contact when doing business is that the same stress applies equally – in almost Newtonian exactness – to the other side, to the other Party to the deal.  The curse of ‘the sweat of our brows’ then transpires to be a Godsend sent to us so as to bring us together – if not as undesigning amicable disinterested and extempore cordial strangers, then – and better than not at all – as persons looking after their mutual interests and in joint hopes for the sharing of benefits.

‘They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”

You can find this article at our steemit blog: https://steemit.com/business/@matthew.raymer/fear-and-trust

Doing Business

Traditionally the choices have been three.

  • The unregulated society: in which business acts after its own interests and meets with competition others who conflict with its interests
  • The regulated society: in which business is dominated so that necessarily choice of action is delimited and freedom to do business and competition are controlled.
  • The middle way of interventions: wherein a regulator (usually a Nation State Government) is intrusive into unregulated business, so as to ameliorate the harsher social consequences which arise out of an untrammelled free market

In practice, concerning Choice 1, (unregulated business): it has merely acted to shunt from pole position regulated controlled activity down the economic and social class ladder.

What I mean is that in societies where business is relatively unregulated employers have built up their large companies as closed-off organisations, within which employees to a greater or lesser extent are exposed to command and control.

Employers’ command and control is seldom much less oppressive inside their organisations than that carried on by Nation State Governments which choose as their model a regulated controlled economy

Freedom and choice and opportunity pertaining to unregulated business models are enjoyed chiefly by the persons who own and run businesses under this model

Necessarily it is argued, according to traditional thinking, these owners/operators are compelled to control and command their employees so that their companies are able to perform in the most effective efficient way against their competitors in the free marketplace.

Normally speaking there is inside any business organisation which is operating within an unregulated economy a hierarchy of control by which those high up enjoy lesser degrees of direct oppression and control whilst those low down bear greater degrees of these.

These degrees of direct oppression in the main correspond inversely to the extent that:

  • a) Any economic business or society is unregulated, and
  • b) Any business employee is presumed by his/her employer to hold a stake of some kind in the business. (This is why a senior manager will receive higher wages and obtain to a higher degree of status, often also having lower graded employees to control and direct. Such a higher grade employee will be presumed to have a greater stake in the organisation (and so also have more to lose from dismissal) than those whom he controls and directs.)

Logically then, inside this traditional model, the low graded employees are those most directly oppressed because they are those most controlled and directed, and are considered to hold least stake in the organisation.

(This critique of mine is not Marxist; it is in fact how business operators perceive the socio-economic reality, and their perception is justified by them, by their approving it as being a ‘natural order’ of things.  Such an conception has a utility to them not unlike the concept of Divine Right for kings in days before industrialisation)

Their argument is classically expressed as being in accord with ‘human nature’, and its leverage is normally brought in to play so as to justify hierarchical organisation based on privilege and dominion.

The simple psychology behind this ‘human nature’ argument proposes that men and women who carry no responsibilities will be those most likely to act irresponsibly. This inductive generalisation is based on premises that include preconceptions that:

  • Lowly graded employees need closer managing so as to function well
  • They will naturally evade their tasks otherwise
  • The general mass of them are not suited to taking on bigger roles
  • They have poor self-regulatory powers
  • They will do no more than they are made to do
  • They have little initiative and few and basic employable skills

These then are the employees seen as having least stake in a business, and they are considered to be those employees who are most liable to act irresponsibly.

The concept of ‘having or not having a stake’ in a venture is essential to the upholders of the ‘human nature’ argument. Having a stake, so the pitch runs, confers responsibility and energises ambition to improve oneself; which all engender that self-regulation and other ‘virtues’ prized by employers.

Having a stake then allows employees greater freedom; but only to opt for ambition, responsibility and self regulation, in favour of the employer.

Conversely, those employees of the least consequence in any business are thus those who will receive most control and direction.

(Normally-speaking and collaterally, lowly graded employees also obtain least wages. This is because their lowly status, without stake, is normally perceived to warrant lower levels of trust and to incur higher levels of risk for employers.  The class of lowly workers is also normally present in an organisation in far greater numbers than the number of higher-status employees who direct them

More later on how this factor of ‘greater numbers’ tends towards being another wage depressing factor)

On the other hand, an employer who is allowing privileged high-grade employees a modicum of stake in his company, intends them to accept his ‘gift’ as a stimulus that encourages them to act responsibly towards him and his company; and so nurture the interests of the business. The actual degree of anticipated loyalty/responsibility accepted and acted upon by an employee will be commensurate proportionately to the rank, status and reward that employer ‘gifts’ to employees.

These arguments so far are nothing more than standard thinking.

A sense of responsibility then, it is expected, can be awakened and reinforced in the minds of some select employees by reason of the bundle of rewards they obtain from the employer in exchange. Thus a deal is cut between higher-grade employees and the employer.

Employees of higher status normally obtain higher wages, but not only as a result of their acceptance of ‘the risks’ involved in, and ‘the burden’ of, their positions and responsibilities; indeed and  moreover, their very rewards (so it is understood) act to ‘tie them into’ their employment and business organisation. The arrangement has similarities with the methods used by early Victorian Industrialists who provided their workers with ‘Tommy Shops[i]’ and ‘tied-cottages[ii]’.

Thus arises a belief that an employee’s loyalty is conditional upon his persuasion to self-interest, and that this can be generated in him by the enlightened self-interest of his employer providing to him adequate inducements.  Although bearing upon the privileged employee also are those pressures arising out of forebodings and concerns at the thought of his losing such gifted indulgences.

And so even the favoured higher-grade employee remains straitened; controlled by his employer’s will and power. It is his sense of the risks involved in being dismissed which delineates for him the opportunity cost of him stepping out of line.

[i] A Tommy Shop was owned by the employer. The employer paid his employees wages in tokens which were accepted only at his Tommy Shops in exchange for foods and domestic goods.  An employee was thus tied-into buying at the Tommy Shop, which were not unknown to charge higher prices than free-marketplace shops.

[ii] A tied-cottage was a house owned by the employer; who was able to hire and fire at will. When an employee was fired he and his family lost also their tied-cottage and were thus destitute on the streets.

 

You  can also find this article at our steemit blog: https://steemit.com/business/@matthew.raymer/doing-business#comments

Metanomalies publication The Future of Internet Piracy Storage

We’re proud to announce this new article in our Future of Piracy series on our Metanomalies community portal.  We explore new technologies (such as storj) which are capable of being leveraged for piracy as well as normal file storage.

[The point of this series is to emphasize that small creative owners (as well as large corporate ones) need to carefully consider the strength of communities to monetize their works rather than (or in addition) to traditional intellectual property.]