The Remedy for the Tyranny of Technique and the Anxiety of Self-Creation

Alan Noble’s You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World

Express yourself. Follow your heart. Find your passion. Whatever makes you happy. Dream big. Live your truth. Love yourself first. I do me, you do you.

These are the choruses of self-creation that echo like a powerful drumbeat in our ears, driving the cultural march ever onward. In his recent book You Are Not Your Own Alan Noble stops the music and uncovers how this search for meaning through self-expression and self-improvement techniques ultimately self-destructs. It deconstructs because it runs into the hard limits of reality—a reality that reveals that we are not our own, and that the reign of technique and efficiency dehumanizes us at almost every turn.

The Anxiety of Self-Creation

Noble frames the problems of meaning and identity today as “the responsibilities of self-belonging” – that we are each responsible for our own self, fashioning and forming who we want to be from the endless smorgasbord of options to be anyone or do anything. “To live authentically means to justify your own existence, to express your identity, to interpret meaning for yourself, to judge according to your own moral compass, and to belong where and only where you can choose” (37). At first this may seem freeing, but for anyone who takes it just the least bit seriously, it morphs into an anxiety-inducing burden and responsibility that is bigger than what our shoulders are designed to bear. Noble sees this lie “that we are our own” as “the fundamental lie of modernity.” He continues:

Until we see this lie for what it is, until we work to uproot it from our culture and replant a conception of human persons as belonging to God and ourselves, most of our efforts at improving the world will be glorified Band-Aids (5).

Noble demonstrates how the Band-Aids of self-help and self-creation aren’t stopping the bleeding, and actually might be making it worse: incels and femcels, dehumanizing work and careerism, mental health and rising anxiety, endemic porn use and sex abuse scandals, and the list could go on. While “no single cause can explain the presence of these social ills,” Noble suggests that they all “share important characteristics: they are systemic in nature, they are inhuman, and they all rely on a particular set of assumptions about what it means to be human” (17).

And herein lies the problem: we have a faulty anthropology that places all the onus on us to find, formulate, and even fabricate, meaning for our lives. And through technology and technique, we have made this brutally efficient.

The Tyranny of Technique

Noble applies Jacques Ellul’s concept of technique and efficiency to today’s questions of self-expression and social ills. Even in the mid-20th century, Ellul, a French philosopher and theologian, saw technique and efficiency coming to consume every aspect of life and society. As he defined it in The Technological Society (originally entitled La Technique in French), technique is the “totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity” (xxv). Just as the factories of the industrial world were optimized according to new standards of efficiency, now everything is measured, recorded, analyzed through a lens of efficiency, and then submitted to a technique to maximize outcomes according to efficiency. But Ellul and Noble argue that such mechanistic metrics are not appropriate for human beings and human flourishing—hence all the dehumanization we experience today.

Do you have a problem with time management? There’s an app for that. Do you have a problem with weight management? There’s an app for that, too. Do you have a problem with anger management? Read this self-help book. Do you have a problem with focus and attention? Employ these techniques to self-optimize. Even the language of behavior management and optimization itself is employing a concept from the industrial economy to address human problems—not good, according to Ellul and Noble.

The focus on efficiency, productivity, optimization, and self-improvement is exhausting. The reign of technique creates an environment of competition for attention, success, and almost everything. It turns efficiency into a “judgment of human value,” which “morally malforms both the winners and the losers” (75). In other words, when we apply the unflinching standards of efficiency and technique to the messy reality of human experience, it turns us into efficiency-machines or technique-bots. As more aspects of the human experience are quantified into the newest data points for analytics, “they overwhelm us with the sense that all of life is essentially a competition” (77). Noble laments where this leads:

Technique promises a better world but produces only a more efficient world with different problems. Technique is then used to solve the problems that technique unintentionally created, which only produces new unintended consequences. The further it goes, the more absurd it becomes and the more helpless we feel to stop it (111).

Noble concludes that “so long as our foundational understanding of what it means to be human goes unquestioned, so long as we blame our problems on natural or biological limitations, societal injustices, or personal weaknesses, our only recourse will be more techniques.”

But Noble offers hope: “thank God we are not our own” (115).

The Blessing of Not Being Your Own

Noble’s answer to the tyranny of technique and the anxiety of self-creation is found in the fact that we are not our own; that we are made and loved by a transcendent and eternal other, who reveals himself intimately in Christ, the embodied one, fully God and fully Man. As Noble puts it, it is not just a question of Who I am, but Whose I am.

Since at least the early twentieth century, the predominant existential question for those in the West has been who am I? But the better question is whose am I? Who is this being to whom I belong, how do I belong to them, and what are the implications of this belonging on my life? (116).

This simple, yet profound turn offers a rich treasure-trove of possibilities. Noble writes:

An anthropology defined by our belonging to God is diametrically opposed to the contemporary belief that we are autonomous, free, atomistic individuals who find our greatest fulfillment in breaking free from all external norms. Our selves belong to God, and we are joyfully limited and restrained by the obligations, virtues, and love that naturally come from this belonging. (6)

Belonging implies limits. It’s just a matter of to whom we belong—ourselves, or to God. “If we belong to ourselves, then we set our own limits—which means we have no limits except our own will. If we belong to God, then knowing and abiding by His limits enables us to live as we were created to live, as the humans He designed us to be” (118). Noble doesn’t offer a sure-fire solution or five-step plan—that would just be a return to technique and efficiency. Instead, he offers us a place to start, a place of finitude and contingency, a place of wonder and gratitude from which wisdom, virtue, and day-by-day faithfulness can grow, slowly, but surely as a tree planted by living water.

is a classical educator, furniture-maker, and vicar at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught high school history for thirteen years and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Salvo, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.

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