Strate begins with Ellul’s argument that literacy and education make people more vulnerable to propaganda, rather than less:
[L]iterate, well-educated people tend to think they’re immune to propaganda, that it only affects the “ignorant” masses, and he wants us literate elites to know that the reverse is true. Ellul argues that for propaganda to work, the messages have to reach their target, and in the modern world that largely requires literacy.
For Ellul, this all comes down to his fundamental concept of “la technique”, of “the supremacy of efficiency” to which every institution is now in thrall:
For Ellul, it’s modern communication and information technologies that are the key to propaganda, and as the digerati have succeeded the literati, it’s the folks who are online all the time, keeping up with blogs and tweets and the like, who are the most open to propaganda.
As Strate puts it, “the supposedly well-informed news junkie is the most propagandized individual of all” – because we are the ones who expose ourselves most thoroughly to the most technically efficient means of propaganda.
Strate also makes some observations on Ellul’s view of religion in a technological society which I’d love to see unpacked more thoroughly, in particular the way in which, on the one hand, religious institutions are “turned into vehicles for propaganda, along with all other cultural institutions”, while on the other hand local congregations can (or should) function as “the main site of resistance to ‘la technique’”, as “a counterenvironment where we might try to find a way to hold on to or reclaim our humanity in a technological age”.
Finally, Strate discusses the influence of Ellul on Neil Postman (who I really, really must get round to reading one day). Postman was concerned at how “the image culture associated with television has supplanted the language-centered culture of the typographic era”, thus “upsetting the balance” that had been achieved between word and image since the invention of printing: “leading to what Ellul referred to as the humiliation of the word.”
Strate adds to this a very important point: that the triumph of la technique, of efficiency, is a victory of numbers. He concludes from this that:
the postmodern condition is one in which the word, in both its oral and literate forms, is under assault from two different directions, two extremes, the hyperreality of the image, and the hyperrationalism of the number.
I think that’s a hugely important observation. It’s perhaps demonstrated most vividly by the growth in popularity of visualizations and infographics. As it happens, I often find both of these useful, having in many ways quite a “visual” mind – but I’m also very aware of how they reflect the imperative of la technique towards efficiency, to the “one best way” of achieving a desired outcome. And “propaganda” is precisely the efficient deployment of information in order to achieve a particular outcome.
But the supreme expression of this assault on the word from “the hyperreality of the image and the hyperrationalism of the number” is found in the ubiquity of the spreadsheet. When people look back on this era, I suspect the spreadsheet will be seen as one of the most significant and influential developments: a tool which has allowed the “hyperrationalism of numbers” (backed up, at the click of an “insert chart” button”, by the hyperreality of the image) to supplant intuition and the word (and thus personal interrelationship) in ever more areas of human activity.