on Technological Communication

In the third chapter of The Presence of the Kingdom, Jacque Ellul analyzes the problem of communication. The problem, simply state, is that true human communication is absent. There is, in modern culture, two elements that prevent modern man from human communication: a lack of awareness of culture, and an enslavement of the intelligence to technical methods. These two problems create the condition for a lack of communication. 

One of the main reasons for the lack of communication in modern man is the intellectual method of expression of the day: techniques. Ellul claims that the fact that “the intelligence is obliged to use the technical channel breaks personal relations, because there is no possibility of contact between two human beings along this line” (114). True communication cannot take place in a technical context, it can only take place in a context in which two human beings are fully engaged in a real conversation. Real conversations are both avoided and prevented by technological means. 

In usual Ellulian fashion, his perspective seems bleak, hopeless and maybe even hysterical.  But today, 70 years later, we may find value in his reproach on technology and communication. 

Ellul’s work, written in 1948, was a prophetic disapproval. Ellul did not live in the computer age as we know it. He did not experience, or could likely not have even conceptualized the social networking apparatuses we consume on a daily and recurrent basis. And yet, his reflection on the paralytic consequences of technology upon human relationships is precisely the epidemic we are experiencing today.  It is not enough for the average person to have one “social networking” engagement but many people participate in two or even three. All of these networks give the user the ability to “define himself” in such a way that is flexible to the point of flawlessness.  Human conversation is unpredictable and unalterable, and thus requires vulnerability. Social networks then provide refuge from the vulnerability of being perceived naturally and imperfectly. Yet in all this, human relationships become impoverished. The task becomes one of personal promotion, image and status, an untarnished wholeness that is inhuman, all at the expense of true human connection and conversation. The irony that one who may have “1000 friends” is now lonelier than ever.