Based on what has happened in the past in the way of scientific and technological change, few people are prepared to say positively that those things won't happen. After living through the dawn of the atomic age and miracles of technology ranging all the way from color television to rockets to Mars, we tend to expect the unexpected in the way of technical developments. In fact, we become impatient when problems that have plagued mankind for thousands of years fail to yield to scientific progress. Why is it taking so long to find a cure for cancer or a way to produce enough food to feed the world's hungry millions, we wonder? We are sure that progress will pull those thorns from our side someday, so why not now?
At least one man who makes it his business to try to see into the future, however, thinks that questions about coming miracles of science would not tell the story of the welfare of mankind, even if they could be answered today. He is Jacques Ellul, a French professor of History and Contemporary Sociology, whose book The Technological Society has haunted my thoughts ever since I started reading and rereading it about a year ago. First published in French in 1954, it has been translated into English and was published in the U. S. in 1964 by Alfred A. Knopf. The fascinating thing about Ellul's book is that it probes and explains the role of the individual in the technological revolution that is going on, and gives you and me a way to try to guess what our lives will be like 20 or 40 years from now. His picture of the future is not very rosy, but it is so persuasively drawn and documented that even an incurable optimist like myself can't stop thinking about it.
"Technique" is what has molded our past and will shape our future, says Ellul. What is "technique?" As used by Ellul, it means the best way to get a job done, combining the use of machines with standardized procedures and behavior that fits into a regular mold. Technique is "the system," symbolized by the punched card—which the average person uses continually without understanding. It is the proliferation of numbers for people instead of names—numbers which people aren't happy with but which they must accept to keep the system functioning and growing. Man can never see where technique will lead him, says Ellul. Chemists developed synthetic detergents, for example, without any realization that those chemicals would not break down in sewage plants and would therefore pollute water supplies. The first announcements of DDT said that it was completely harmless to warm blooded animals. Only after it was widely used did its hazard show up.
When primitive man began sorting ripe apples from green ones and treating each kind differently, he started the development of the technique of fruit cultivation. Future generations perfected various tasks of the operation. Long poles were made to knock down apples before they became over-ripe. Trees which bore the biggest and best-tasting fruit were propagated and planted in orchards. Those were improvements which, along with others, lead to the complex operation that is fruit growing today. In short, a standardized technique of orcharding has developed through the contributions of many people, all of whom had an insight into their portion of the job. But the system of orcharding as a whole wasn't planned by any one person or group of people who had an eye on the overall welfare of mankind. It simply grew, through a succession of improvements. (A more powerful insecticide was brought into play to kill a tougher bug, not because anyone understood the exact function of that insecticide in the whole scheme of orcharding.) What has emerged is the best commercial method of fruit growing that almost everybody uses.
Mr. Ellul's big worry about this inevitable march of progress is that it lacks guidance and purpose. Our present commercial technique of fruit growing in effect dominates most fruit growers, who must follow the system worked out by so many other people. That is just one example of technique. The individual has become a cog in the wheel. Our future world will be shaped, says Ellul, by many people advancing the art of many techniques, with no one person or group having the power to steer developments in directions that will truly benefit mankind. Anything technical that is possible to do will be done. A supersonic transport plane will be built and used, even though it is doubtful whether the added speed of travel will compensate mankind sufficiently for the damage done to everyone's lives by continual sonic booms. Man will go to the moon, if only to make sure that he gets there before someone else. No person alive has the power to decide whether the cost of that trip might have been better spent in purifying our environment or in other ways to make our lives more pleasant. Technique is in the driver's seat.
Political or religious boundaries mean little to the force of technique. Under communism or capitalism, it is at work. People everywhere are learning that the routine of their lives is being molded by new systems and devices. Television holds people in thraldom around the world, returning little in the way of education or outstanding entertainment. The advantages of modern city life are being submerged in noise, crowding and dirt. "Man is gradually losing his illusions about technique and his bedazzlement with it," says Ellul. "He is becoming aware that he has not created an instrument of freedom but a new set of chains."
What hope is there for a future life of emancipation from technique? Only a massive uprising of the people in revolt against "the system" will do the trick, believes Jacques Ellul, although he does not predict that it will happen. Everyone would have to set out on a deliberate nonconformist course, a highly unlikely occurrence. Movements of reform and technical revolution—such as the organic gardening and farming movement—reflect the disenchantment of a segment of the public with a portion of "the system." You and I are building a shelter against technique on our own homesteads, where we strive to use natural methods to the greatest extent, I but unless we could get everyone to do likewise in a free and unconstrained manner we would not be altering the course of the whole technical system of gardening and farming.
Let's return to our original subject—your garden in the year 2000. What will it be like? Although synthetic food may be made in large amounts and many people will use it, man won’t lose his taste for a fresh tomato or a sweet ear of corn-on-the-cob in the next 35 years. If anything, he will be hungrier for them than he is today. And he will cherish a lush, green lawn and beds of flowers even more than today as visual relief from the starkness of the city. But whether he will be really free enough in spirit to enjoy those pleasures depends on the extent to which we can keep our lives from being dominated by technique, if Jacques Ellul is to be believed.