A Few Thoughts on Technique

One of the truly perspective-changing things I've come into contact with this year has been the concept of technique – it's been written about by loads of people, but the main guy was a Frenchman called Jacques Ellul.  He died in the early nineties.  The reason that technique has been such an eye-opener is because it's such a simple concept, but its application is so widespread that it has kind of changed the way I look at pretty much everything.

Very simply speaking, technique describes how we humans are constantly attempting to make things easier or better for ourselves by inventing more advanced methods (usually involving technology), but that, having created these systems, we become dependent on and enslaved by them and end up forgetting what it was that we had wanted in the first place.

However, the easiest way to explain the concept is to give examples, so here are some clumsy attempts:

School is technique
We have no need for it, in order to become educated, but to make it easier for governments to standardise education – so that everyone gets taught the same stuff to vaguely the same standard – we have this huge system.  Unfortunately, we've kind of forgotten what on earth we wanted to be educated for.  To pass exams?

Democracy is technique
It was invented to give every citizen a say in national leadership, so that life could be better for the ordinary person.  But in the last ten years, we've had wars fought and people killed with democracy itself as the big utilitarian Greater Good – as if putting an X in a box was ever really supposed to be an end in itself.

Money is technique
It was invented so that bartering could be standardised, but now it (and the amassing of it) has become the assumed goal in our society.  To own lots of pieces of metal.

iPhones are technique
They have been brought about because of the demand to have constant access to everything that might be needed, all of the time.  Unfortunately, they also mean that poor, overworked businesswomen can no longer genuinely go home from work.  Yes dear, it may help you advance in your career, but is your career really the reason you are alive?

Blogs are technique
In an ideal world, we would all have the people we most care about living a few streets away, but instead we are all flung to the nations, unable to cross paths without astounding expense.  Therefore, it sometimes helps to have a way of keeping vaguely up-to-date with our long-lost loves, and to process out loud in their digital presence.  But it's a poor second best to a cosy pub or a grassy bank.

And this is Kenneth Williams, pointing out the drawback in the technique of specialised expertise; that the cleverer we get, the more ignorant we are about everything about which we are not expert:

[hence my longing to be a Renaissance Man – to be passably reasonable at pretty much everything]

4 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Technique

  1. By the way, I am aware that that post was a pretty lame attempt at an explanation. But maybe I’ve intrigued you enough to go and find out for yourself. Using your iPhones.

  2. It’s far too easy, not to mention popular, to look at social web phenomena like Facebook and Twitter and make commentary about the dumbing down and cyber-replacing of social interaction instead of seeing them as vaulable tools we need to understand and leverage.
    Similarly it’s easy to blame a tool for web/data interaction like the iPhone for perpetuating an always-on fidget culture beyond the realms of the office and into personal time.
    Ironically, since I’ve had mine, I spend less time answering e-mail, syncing diaries with Jules and hunting around for project information. Kind of counter to your idea of being enslaved to technology, it’s actually helped to some degree for me to spend more time in the real world. How bizarre.
    Sent from my iPhone.

  3. Fantastic Ben – that’s EXACTLY the idea. Let it work for you, so that the real stuff can get done.
    My problem (amongst my many problems) is when I forget what it is that I really want – what I am really made for – and then start pursuing things which, when achieved, are utterly empty and pointless, since they are, at best, stepping stones. I don’t think that technology is either good or evil, it is what we do with it that makes it so.
    What I am trying to do is to discover my loves and allow the stepping stones (ie. the iPhones, the Schools, the Blogs, the Jobs) to help me along rather than tangle me up so that I can’t see the wood for the trees.
    Something like that …

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