Nevertheless, Ellul’s analysis of freedom holds up, since most of us are not masters but consumers of technology, adapting to it and prone to mistake the valuable tensions involved in pursuing the highest goods for nothing but technical problems to be solved (and surely our technicians are no less prone to this). Recognizing the value of these tensions can be difficult, as in many areas of life the constant improvement of techniques to alleviate them becomes an unquestioned goal. But standardized tests cannot measure students’ curiosity, social networking cannot replicate the fullness of face-to-face relationships, and poll-tested ads are no substitute for political deliberation. Of course most of us know these things; and yet, our social ethos seems fixated on prizing ever better tools as ways of overcoming challenges and relieving tensions that we ought to recognize as indispensable to many kinds of excellence.
Tension and struggle are productive forces, on both the individual and social level. Many valuable aspects of life cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator of quantifiable data. We generally understand this, yet our age is one in which we feel compelled — and compulsion is indeed an apt description of this thoughtless urge — to “solve” anything we see as a problem, and to do it as quickly as possible, especially through the use of science and technology. As our shared moral vocabulary withers, we default to a utilitarian standard that can only think in terms of maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering. But as mystics have been saying since forever ago, a vision of a world in which “bad” and “undesirable” things can be progressively erased until there’s nothing left but good, pleasant things by default is absolutely incoherent, based on a terribly mistaken understanding of reality, and doomed to frustration and failure if pursued.
Yes, I realize I just rephrased the very section I excerpted. I can’t help it; I’m just wallowing in the profundity of it. Compelled to rearrange everything we can for reasons we hardly understand in service to a chimerical vision of life we wouldn’t want even if we could achieve it. Sometimes you just have to laugh at the grand folly of it all. Hell, even the relatively straightforward task of trying to pin down happiness makes us look like complete fools.