This paper analyzes Jacques Ellul’s book The Technological Society and its relation to strategic military communication topics. The author addresses how Ellul's analysis of technology and technique play a role in contemporary strategic communication even though Ellul does not directly discuss strategic communication. Ellul's wide range of concepts goes into great detail to inform critical thinking and provides vast insight into how contemporary issues such as disinformation and technical aspects of military communication can be analyzed for future research.
Keywords: Strategic Communication, military, propaganda, fake news, public affairs, public relations, Ellul, technique, technology
Critical Summary of Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society
In contemporary times, society is bombarded with technology and information from the time people wake up and go to sleep. Corporations, politicians, government officials and the media are vying for people’s attention to market their products or influence. This leaves individuals with little time to consume and cypher all information being received and to apply adequate analysis in their decision making. With technology, society is connected globally, and as events occur in real time, people around the world are informed of the events in real time. There are absolutely abuses of technology and technique as it is tested and tried by any state trying to get an upper hand, economically, politically, or militarily.
Ellul’s Understanding of Strategic Communication
Ellul dives into the totalitarian states and their need for total control. According to him, every technique and technological advancement will be aimed at securing more control for the state. He talks of intermediaries doing the states bidding to maintain control over the economic, social and political infrastructure. He mentions communist states, but the United States is not exempt from this. In the Global War on Terrorism, there have been many cases of ethical violations by the United States, such as torture and detainment of foreign individuals without due process or charge. Secret courts were established to allow intelligence agencies to spy on American citizens. Shock and awe from 9/11 caused many Americans to overlook ethical guidelines and laws because the United States was under attack from anyone around the world connected with Islamic extremism. Every technique and technology in the United States arsenal was employed at home and abroad to stop the next 9/11 attack, and it took many years for Americans at home to start questioning the techniques employed. “Man, however, is still not willing to believe in the reality of this situation; he tends to reject, above and beyond bad technical uses and doctrines, the results of this conjunction between state and technique” (Ellul, 1964, p. 301).
Freedom and security is always in a tug of war battle, and when the general population succumbs to fear, the security apparatus of the state has lot of momentum in restricting freedoms that were known to society before the incident that caused fear. It isn’t just the state pulling on the rope, it is private institutions and individuals as well that demand for more security, especially after events such as 9/11. Look at America’s issues with mass shootings for example. Many Americans are calling for gun control and many other Americans are defending the 2nd Amendment. Many organizations employ emotional appeal of each mass shootings on the media to win over more people into their pro-gun control camp. “Whether the question is one of understanding public opinion, or of stochastics, or of statistics as a whole, the technical starting point is always the human behavior of the majority. From this behavior, technique draws a number of consequences and modes of action, erecting on it the system into which it will necessarily insert itself” (Ellul, 1964, p 216).
Strategic communication is just another technique employed by states for more control over their domain. It is the states’ communication channel with their public as well as other foreign publics. Governments can employ their state communications as they see fit, but the United States is duty bound for transparency of operations, if operational security is not violated. The systems of management in the United States are connected, where economic interests of the country guide public policy as well as foreign policy. Ellul is critical of these systems and claims they are anti-humanistic and anti-democratic (p. 215). Through that dystopian critique, strategic communication can be employed both negatively and positively to address problems of society, by employing information gained from objective research in other fields of study.
Three Complications: Dehumanization, Dissociation, and Disappearance of Individuality
Technology has a way of removing individuality from processes, dehumanizing societal problems both local and abroad, or causing individuals to compartmentalize and dissociate their beliefs from reality. During World War II, the Allies and the Axis powers entered total war. British Bomber Command of the allies under General Arthur bombed many German cities but were forced to stop after their American allies didn’t have a taste for city bombing. The Soviet Union was hurting on the Eastern Front and during a meeting in Crimea with Churchill and Roosevelt, city bombing was authorized to help the Russians push through Germany. To military strategists, these the cities were just industry centers that fueled the German war effort, and the civilian workers were combatants for their part in building the tanks and weapons. The bombing of the German city of Dresden is an example of technique and technology dehumanizing the population below, where the bombers and commanders dissociate their actions. Civilians were melted and roasted alive, due to the firestorm created by the advanced bombing technology. Military structures are conformist in nature which helps military units operate with expectations that they will conform to textbook military strategy. In the case of the Battle of the Bulge, Adolf Hitler launched the counterattack against Allied forces in Belgium. Prior to making these plans, Adolf Hitler survived an attempted assassination and had 200 senior German military leaders killed for their part in the plot. The current German military leaders were too afraid to challenge Hitler’s plans for this counter offensive that strategically was flawed in their eyes. Hitler wanted yes-men officers and to challenge him then could prove to be fatal. The conformist technique of military organization removes any sense of individuality especially in an organization that frowns upon it. Although conformity serves its purpose in creating efficient communication and a common language between military units, there is a value placed on individuals who have the confidence to break textbook as well as chain of command if the need arises to win the battle. It is the outcome of the battle that determines if that individual made the right decision or not. In the end, being by the book and making clinical decisions at the strategic level of operational planning makes it easy to forget that under planned targets, humans are there. Those humans are associated with an object that identifies a military target and the planners associate them as such.
When analyzing strategic communication campaigns, it is important to look at the people that are affected by the campaign. Their values should be explored as well as compared to those trying to influence and those who are influenced. Constructive individual opinion and feedback should be valued. The outliers can add value to observing any spectrum of thought.
Relevance to Future Strategic Communications
The techniques used to persuade targeted audience to generate action for a state or economic cause have risks associated with it. “Propaganda is not just about lies and wrongful persuasion. According to Kenneth Payne, it ‘is a conscious act of construction, bringing the discipline within the ambit of psychology and anthropology. The successful propagandist has grounded their message in the narrative elements most likely to resonate with the target groups.’ Propaganda influences opinions, attitudes and applies continuous reinforcement by saturating public communication with calibrated messages, in order to establish their relevance through the differentials that characterize specific symbolic cultures. The techniques of manipulation engage with and adapt to their target's culture with the purpose of focusing and orienting large numbers of people towards economic, political, and military goals” (Alves, 2014, p.180). Propaganda phenomena are going to be with society for a long time and has been with humanity since the first story tellers sat around camp fires. In military strategic communications, masses of people are targeted that compose similar individual beliefs or profiles. Ellul describes this targeting of the individual and the masses. The technology of mass communication and social media is just another technique used to exploit influence (p. 180).
As an employee of the state (United States Department of Defense) and an intermediary communicator for that state, the author surmises that Ellul’s analysis of totalitarian states and its use of propaganda is vital to understanding the current systems in use and its perceptions by the public. Ellul offers a critical lens in which to observe the direction of military strategic communications as well as question objectively its ethics and effects on society.
There are many contemporary examples of complications caused by technique described by Ellul that applies to current Strategic Communication strategies and tactics. Self-reflection as military communicators on how narratives are controlled, and publics are informed is crucial to the field of military strategic communications. Ellul presents a clear and present danger of state uses of the technique of on the masses.
Alves, A. M. (2014). Jacques Ellul’s “Anti-Democratic Economy:” Persuading Citizens and Consumers in the Information Society. TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, 12(1), 169-201. doi:10.31269/triplec.v12i1.465
Ellul, J., Wilkinson, J., & Merton, R. K. (1967). The technological society. New York: Vintage Books.
Janssen, V. (2020, February 12). Why Was Dresden So Heavily Bombed? Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/dresden-bombing-wwii-allies