I’ve just finished Charbonneau’s famous (in France, amongst the literate Greens) Le Systeme et le chaos, published back in 1967, revised in 1973, and recently republished. The basic thesis is very like the views of Ellul on technology – that technological change is now self-sustaining and broken free of being significantly determined by the improvement of human lives. It’s a view that would echo the warnings about the military – industrial complex, that the process of technological change is self-sustaining and largely unrelated to human good.
The interesting difference between Ellul and Charbonneau is that the latter was an agnostic and so did not set his views on technology in any particular connection with theology. From reading Le Chaos one effect of this is that the view is, at heart, that bit bleaker. For anyone familiar with the work of Ellul this may seem a bit unlikely, he has a pretty bleak vision. But this difference is indicated in the title. There are, then, really only two options in our relationship to tech that have any likelihood of being realised – a chaotic breakdown where technology so ignores the need of human for a liveable world that the ecosystem in some way fails (war, pollution) or else technology integrates the human world into its ‘system’ and human freedom disappears in anything but a trivial sense. Charbonneau notes many of the mechanisms that tech uses to prevent out disquiet about technology having any real effect – various sorts of compensation. So the holiday and leisure industry helps to overcome our fears about the loss of wilderness by giving us a ‘sort of wild’ experience, a manicured nature that calms our fears. Charbonneau does hint that it’s conceivable, but unlikely, that the we might prefer our human liberty and our planetary diversity to our current technologically imposed ecological slumber, but even back in the 60s he was clearly not optimistic. What would he say now, now we can ignore the natural world around us in favour of life through a mobile device?
Charbonneau is quite a bit funnier than Ellul, rather more inclined to viewing modern technologically enhanced living through the eyes of a Jacques Tati, with a surreal and satirical eye. In this line, see in particular Charbonneau’s Hommeauto. But which has the truer vision? Both are excellent, both have a subtlety of vision and a detail of analysis that the years have not made stale. Ellul’s theological dimension is wonderful and makes him, in my view essential reading for any spiritually awake person in the 21st Century. Charbonneau? Well, perhaps more readable and funnier. I think we need to read both.