Tools for Conviviality

August 20, 2014
Ivan Illich

I'm not really sure where to start with this one.

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was first and foremost a staunch critic of industrial society. He rose to counterculture prominence in the 1970s, as the author of a series of short books critiquing various facets of industrial society, including education, energy economy, labour, professional medicine and technology — the latter of which is the theme for Tools for Conviviality. It followed Deschooling Society (which primarily criticized institutional education) and preceded Medical Nemesis (which attacked professionalized medicine), and themes from both also take a prominent role in this book. Unlike what you might expect from a 1970s technology critique, Illich wasn't writing from a Marxist perspective — he was writing from a Christian perspective. However, he doesn't explicitly mention God or the church (he was a Catholic priest) in Tools for Conviviality.

Further unlike what might be expected from a 1970s technology critique (no matter its ideological background), Illich doesn't advocate outright primitivism: His vision of technology does allow the existence of telephones, computers and particle accelerators.

Illich's attack on professionalized medicine terrifies me. One of the reasons I regard primitivists as my ideological enemies is simple self-preservation: As a person born with a respiratory disability, I would have died as a child if I was born in a primitivist society. I'd also be dead if I lived in a society which didn't have people doing pharmacological research and instead substituted yoga and bullshit herbal remedies administered by "barefoot doctors". Thousands of people just like me die every day in the Third World, precisely because they don't have the privilege of access to modern medicine. I have difficulty mustering much enthusiasm for a "better world" in which my own role will be to die a horrible and painful death from respiratory failure to prove an ideological point.

If I can't breathe to it, it's not my revolution.

With that out of the way: The central concept of the book is the role technology plays in the industrial institutionalization of specialized knowledge. The process of institutionalization alienates people both from their work (as Marx also pointed out) and from their communities, and ultimately diminishes human self-confidence and capacity for problem-solving as it creates a society of "human cogs" in the industrial machine. It is in this light Illich's disgust for professionalized medicine and institutionalized education should be seen: He views both as institutions which serve to adapt people to a sick industrial society, with the education system training them to serve the bureaucratic and industrial elite, and the medical establishment permanently treating them for the ills that arise from living in such a society. Both systems, according to Illich, also serve to further professionalization and create disdain for the self-taught by creating institutional monopolies on learning and health care. Because the fundamental value of industrial society is endless economic growth, its institutions serve no other purpose than to perpetuate economic growth, reducing human beings to tools for the institutions. Likewise, the modality of modern education focuses on ownership — people wish to have an education, rather than to learn a skill, essentially turning learning from a process to be participated in into a market commodity to be bought and owned. Like all market commodities, learning then becomes subject to scarcity (or it would lose its market value), creating an unnecessary and harmful divide between the educated and the uneducated.

Rather than being an activity for people to satisfy curiosity and the human thirst for knowledge, institutional education reduces learning to a purely instrumental act, centered on preparing people to become industrially productive.

The technological counterpart to this educational alienation is manifested in the divide between what Illich calls manipulatory and convivial technologies — in essence, technologies that control humans vs. technologies that are controlled by humans. Manipulatory technologies are those that bolster institutionalization, create a demand for an expert caste, and which end up exacerbating the problems they were meant to solve. Illich's running example is the car, which was meant to allow freedom of movement, but eventually reaches a level of domination where cars destroy freedom of movement for everbody who doesn't own a car. Illich terms this a radical monopoly — rather than being a single product marketed by a monopolist, the car remodels society into a construction in which it is a necessity, it "creates the remoteness that it alone can shrink". For a more contemporary example, I thought of the modern cell phone: I haven't owned one since the late 1990s, and now that a common means of Web authentication involves sending SMS messages, I find it impossible to interact with certain Web services. With the advent of the cell phone, it has become a social expectation for a person to be available for communication at all times, and the only way for a person to be so is … the cell phone.

In contrast, a convivial technology is one that can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as the user likes, and for whatever purpose the user wants. Some convivial tools also permits their users to tinker, making them ideal for self-directed learning. Illich uses ubiquitous cheap pay phones as an example of a "structurally convivial" tool: Everybody who can spare a coin can use it to say whatever they want, and there's no way for bureaucrats or industrialists to control what the phone is used to say, or who gets to use it — and it's of limited utility for totalitarians wishing to construct a surveillance society, because even though pay phones can be tapped, they don't offer possibilities for predicting when a given person uses a given pay phone. Essentially, Illich's concept of "conviviality" is much like the punk DIY ethic and the hacker culture of open sharing of technology. Essentially, convivial technologies are designed to serve socially interrelated autonomous, individual human beings rather than managers.

It's important to note that Illich doesn't propose forbidding manipulatory technologies (or institutions), or creating a society in which large-scale industry cannot exist. Rather, he envisions a society in balance, where tools for industrial production exist alongside community-run and personal tools that foster self-realization, effectively keeping the manipulatory nature of the former from dominating people's lives.

In many ways, Illich's views of the social roles of technology reflect my own — which is perhaps unsurprising, given that I grew up in the aftermath of the 1970s personal computer revolution, which was largely inspired by his ideas (Lee Felsenstein, for instance, explicitly mentions Illich's philosophy among his influences) and subsequently spent my youth hanging about the Amiga demo scene and the Free Software community, both of which also embodied a heavily Illichesque "computer power to the people" ethic. At any rate, I didn't find it as "mind-blowing" as many other reviewers have. Many of the thoughts about who technologies are supposed to serve and how they affect society weren't new to me — and what was new to me was mostly things I find revolting (Illich's wish to sentence thousands of people to death by abolishing the medical system) or just plain weird (some of his anti-education thoughts), all of which he treats more comprehensively in other works. I should probably read Medical Nemesis and De-Schooling Society at some point.

As an aside, "conviviality" seems to me to be precisely the quality that exists in my favourite programing languages (Lisp, Forth, Smalltalk), and is absent in my least favourite ones (C++, C#, Java). The Smalltalk design principles explicitly mentions how it's intended to serve "the creative spirit in everyone", and its first goal is to be "entirely comprehensible to a single individual" — a principle I find so important that I also consider it a primary design principle of Merlin. Forth and Lisp have a similar characteristic, and both language families are simple and tinkering-friendly enough that lots of coders have made their own implementations over the years — as have communities of coders. In stark contrast, C# and Java are designed and maintained by giant corporations for the purpose of keeping alienated, mediocre industry programmers from hurting themselves and their colleagues, and C++ is so stupendously overcomplicated that only industrial institutions want to use it. They're managers' languages, not hackers' languages. The quality of being a "hacker's language" seems to me to be precisely equivalent to being a "convivial technology".

Unlike many other works of this nature, Tools for Conviviality scores points for being short, clear and to the point.

Recommended for its thoughts about technology, how culture and technology interact, and its thought-provoking idea of a post-industrial society that isn't either primitivist stone age romanticism or Star Trek. The more disagreeable parts were also well-written and interesting — I still don't agree with them, but Illich definitely isn't stupid or evil.

These days, it's even available online.

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