The Deficiency of the Tool

Jacques Ellul on pre-modern European attitudes toward technical progress and the improvement of practical tools:

The deficiency of the tool was to be compensated for by the skill of the worker. Professional know-how, the expert eye were what counted: man’s talents could make his crude tools yield the maximum efficiency. This was a kind of technique, but it had none of the characteristics of instrumental technique. Everything varied from man to man according to his gifts, whereas technique in the modern sense seeks to eliminate such variability. It is understandable that technique in itself played a very feeble role. Everything was done by men who employed the most rudimentary means. The search for the “finished,” for perfection in use, for ingenuity of application, took the place of a search for new tools which would have permitted men to simplify their work, but also would have involved giving up the pursuit of real skill.

Here we have two antithetical orders of inquiry. When there is an abundance of instruments that answer all needs, it is impossible for one man to have a perfect knowledge of each or the skill to use each. This knowledge would be useless in any case; the perfection of the instrument is what is required, and not the perfection of the human being. But, until the eighteenth century, all societies were primarily oriented toward improvement in the use of tools and were little concerned with the tools themselves. No clean-cut division can be made between the two orientations. Human skill, having attained a certain degree of perfection in practice, necessarily entails improvement of the tool itself. The question is one of transcending the stage of total utilization of the tool by improving it. There is, therefore, no doubt that the two phenomena do interpenetrate. But traditionally the accent was on the human being who used the tool and not on the tool he used.

–Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, “Technique in Civilization”

Tags technology science knowledge human being