76 reasonable questions

The more I read by and about Jacques Ellul, the more I like. He was a contemporary of Marshall McLuhan and a predecessor of Neil Postman. He is as difficult to read as McLuhan, more philosophical than Postman, and more religious than either of them. He was also more of a technological determinist than either of them who was worried about the influence of technology on life, culture, and faith. I found his “76 reasonable questions” to ask about any technology to be intriguing, if not overwhelming. The vocational and moral questions are especially poignant. I retrieved this list from Dr. T. David Gordon’s website, where Gordon comments that the questions are “Interesting and helpful in their own right; if you pose them to an engineer, the result is as amusing as watching a cat chase its tail.” Be sure to check out many of the other links and papers on Gordon’s site.

Ecological
What are its effects on the health of the planet and of the person?
Does it preserve or destroy biodiversity?
Does it preserve or reduce ecosystem integrity?
What are its effects on the land?
What are its effects on wildlife?
How much, and what kind of waste does it generate?
Does it incorporate the principles of ecological design?
Does it break the bond of renewal between humans and nature?
Does it preserve or reduce cultural diversity?
What is the totality of its effects, its “ecology”?

Social
Does it serve community?
Does it empower community members?
How does it affect our perception of our needs?
Is it consistent with the creation of a communal, human economy?
What are its effects on relationships?
Does it undermine conviviality?
Does it undermine traditional forms of community?
How does it affect our way of seeing and experiencing the world?
Does it foster a diversity of forms of knowledge?
Does it build on, or contribute to, the renewal of traditional forms of knowledge?
Does it serve to commodity knowledge or relationships?
To what extent does it redefine reality?
Does it erase a sense of time and history?
What is its potential to become addictive?

Practical
What does it make?
Who does it benefit?
What is its purpose?
Where was it produced?
Where is it used?
Where must it go when it’s broken or obsolete?
How expensive is it?
Can it be repaired?
By an ordinary person?

Moral
What values does its use foster?
What is gained by its use?
What are its effects beyond its utility to the individual?
What is lost in using it?
What are its effects on the least advantaged in society?

Ethical
How complicated is it?
What does it allow us to ignore?
To what extent does it distance agent from effect?
Can we assume personal, or communal responsibility for its effects?
Can its effects be directly apprehended?
What ancillary technologies does it require?
What behavior might it make possible in the future?
What other technologies might it make possible?
Does it alter our sense of time and relationships in ways conducive to nihilism?

Vocational
What is its impact on craft?
Does it reduce, deaden, or enhance human creativity?
Is it the least imposing technology available for the task?
Does it replace, or does it aid human hands and human beings?
Can it be responsive to organic circumstance?
Does it depress or enhance the quality of goods?
Does it depress or enhance the meaning of work?

Metaphysical
What aspect of the inner self does it reflect?
Does it express love?
Does it express rage?
What aspect of our past does it reflect?
Does it reflect cyclical or linear thinking?

Political
Does it concentrate or equalize power?
Does it require, or institute a knowledge elite?
It is totalitarian?
Does it require a bureaucracy for its perpetuation?
What legal empowerments does it require?
Does it undermine traditional moral authority?
Does it require military defense?
Does it enhance, or serve military purposes?
How does it affect warfare?
Is it massifying?
Is it consistent with the creation of a global economy?
Does it empower transnational corporations?
What kind of capital does it require?

Aesthetic
Is it ugly?
Does it cause ugliness?
What noise does it make?
What pace does it set?
How does it affect the quality of life (as distinct from the standard of living)?
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3 thoughts on “76 reasonable questions

  1. I think most engineers would look at these questions as though they were written in Swahili. I am especially amused with the Aesthetic questions. I recall a recent discussion with fellow programmers on beauty involved in programing (re: Paul Graham's book and essay called "Painters and Hackers"). The discussion on beauty was almost incomprehensible to them. They thought Graham was basically crazy, and I found it extremely difficult to make any headway describing the beauty of a well-written program.I remember being struck by the beauty of some of the machines I saw in the 1876 Centennial Exhibit at the Smithsonian. We engineers have certainly lost that aspect of our vocation.

  2. Interesting, Brent! In addition to the aesthetic questions, I found the metaphysical ones fascinating and unique. Who thinks of metaphysical issues with technology? But it makes sense to at least consider.

  3. Absolutely. We engineers DON'T want to think about the metaphysical issues, or the ethical issues, surrounding the stuff we create. It may make us stop making, and no engineer can bear that!

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