Has There Been Progress Since 1250?

has there been progress since 1250“Fourastié [A French economist] is right in putting the case numerically to dramatize the shortening of the work week and the enormous transformation in living standards and in the qualitative nature of life. The case is indeed simple if 1950 is compared with 1815. But it is no longer quite so simple if 1950 is compared with 1250. It is important to consider, for labor, not only time but intensity.”

“It is possible to make a meaningful comparison between the fifteen-hour workday of a miner in 1830 and the seven-hour workday of 1950. But there is no common denominator between the seven-hour day of 1950 and the fifteen-hour day of the medieval artisan. We know that the peasant interrupts his workday with innumerable pauses. He chooses his own tempo and rhythm. He converses and cracks jokes with every passer-by.”

“We cannot say with assurance that there has been progress from 1250 to 1950. In so doing, we would be comparing things which are not comparable. Therefore, it is advisable to limit ourselves to saying that there has been progress since the beginning of the industrial era, which was founded on the breakup and destruction of the non-comparable and vanished old order.”

Quoted from “The Technological Society“, Jacques Ellul, 1964 (p192) / Original work: “La technique ou l’enjeu du siècle”, 1954. The illustration is a detail of “Les quatre états de la société”, a late 15th century painting by Jean Bourdichon.

Characteristics of Modern Technique (1)

polygraph duplicating device

“The one best way”: so runs the formula to which our technique corresponds. When everything has been measured and calculated mathematically so that the method which has been decided upon is satisfactory from the rational point of view, and when, from the practical point of view, the method is manifestly the most efficient of all those hitherto employed or those in competition with it, then the technical movement becomes self-directing. I call the process automatism. (…).

A surgical operation which was formerly not feasible but can now be performed is not an object of choice. It simply is. Here we see the prime aspect of technical automatism. Technique itself, ipso facto and without indulgence or possible discussion, selects among the means to be employed.

The human being is no longer in any sense the agent of choice. Let no one say that man is the agent of technical progress and that it is he who chooses among possible techniques. In reality, he neither is nor does anything of the sort. He is a device for recording effects and results obtained by various techniques. He does not make a choice of complex and, in some way, human motives. He can decide only in favor of the technique that gives the maximum efficiency. But this is not a choice. A machine could effect the same operation.

Quoted from “The Technological Society“, Jacques Ellul, 1964 / Original work: “La technique ou l’enjeu du siècle”, 1954 / Picture: polygraph duplicating device.

Characteristics of modern technique (2)
Characteristics of modern technique (3)