In his 1954 book, The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul states:
The world that is being created by the accumulation of technical means is an artificial world and hence radically different from the natural world. It destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world, and does not allow this world to restore itself or even to enter into a symbiotic relation with it. The two worlds obey different imperatives, different directives, and different laws which have nothing in common. Just as hydroelectric installations take waterfalls and lead them into conduits, so the technical milieu absorbs the natural. We are rapidly approaching the time when there will be no longer any natural environment at all. When we succeed in producing artificial Aurora Boreas, night will disappear and perpetual day will reign over the planet.
He goes on to draw a distinction between the technical and mechanical and questions the possibility of limitless technical innovation based on a physical mechanical system.
What would Ellul think of the digital age? While the computer is a physical object, the world that it creates is not. It is a world of pure technique, with no physical antecedents. Within the digital, we are free from the mechanical limitations Ellul saw as limiting technology. When Ellul wrote his book, pop culture was dreaming of the ultimate in mechanization: the thinking machine – the mechanical robot. Later, we would dream of the man-machine hybrid and more recently the man-computer hybrid. In the post-digital era however, we desire to forgo our physical existence; to not become part of a computer but to be taken over by it, to be transported into the electrical ephemera of digital media. Our bodies are frail, our environment too polluted. True freedom, it will be said, will come with emancipation from the physical.
What will such a world look like and will we have the capacity to imagine its limitations?