“There are two ranges in the growth of tools: the range within which machines are used to extend human capability and the range in which they are used to contract, eliminate, or replace human functions. In the first, man as an individual can exercise authority on his own behalf and therefore assume responsibility. In the second, the machine takes over—first reducing the range of choice and motivation in both the operator and the client, and second imposing its own logic and demand on both. Survival depends on establishing procedures which permit ordinary people to recognize these ranges and to opt for survival in freedom, to evaluate the structure built into tools and institutions so they can exclude those which by their structure are destructive, and control those which are useful.”
— Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (1973)
I recently stumbled upon video of a 2018 seminar on the life and thought of Ivan Illich, which was held at Penn State, where Illich held an appointment as a visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy and the STS program from 1986 to 1996. Several of Illich’s friends and collaborators—including Carl Mitcham, whom I had the pleasure of speaking with this summer—were in attendance. In his opening comments, Sajay Samuel spoke about Illich’s work having reached its “hour of legibility.”
The same thought had occurred to me of late, although I had not put it quite so felicitously. I take him to mean that Illich’s work made even better sense and was even more compelling now than when the work was initially published. Two years later, it seems to me that the value of Illich’s work is even more apparent.
Over the past couple of months, believing that Ivan Illich’s thought indeed spoke with renewed urgency to our moment, I’ve revisited two of his earliest and best known books, Tools for Conviviality and Deschooling Society. As always, reading Illich was a bracing experience—refreshing, challenging, and provocative in the best sense.
There were three key themes that especially caught my attention this time around and on which I’ve continued to dwell. I thought it might be useful to discuss them here, even if only briefly.
Thresholds and Limits
Tools for Conviviality opens with a discussion of what Illich called “two watersheds” in medicine. The medical profession would be the subject of a later book, Medical Nemesis now published as The Limits of Medicine, but here, in a few brief pages, Illich anticipates that later argument. In his view, medicine passed through two watersheds in the twentieth century. Through the first lay significantly better outcomes and improved health through relatively basic developments and discoveries. Through the second, gains begin to be reversed by the less obvious social costs of the professionalization of medicine.
Illich opens with this discussion of medicine in order to illustrate a larger pattern he identifies throughout modern society. He observed that there came a point at which a tool or an institution reached a scale such that putative goods were undermined, gains were reversed, and the tool or institution became a threat to society.
In explaining the purpose of Tools for Conviviality, for example, Illich proposed the concept of “a multidimensional balance of human life which can serve as a framework for evaluating man’s relation to his tools.” “In each of several dimensions of this balance,” Illich wrote, “it is possible to identify a natural scale.” He goes on to add that “when an enterprise grows beyond a certain point on this scale, it first frustrates the end for which it was originally designed, and then rapidly becomes a threat to society itself.”
Tools for Conviviality ends up being, in part, Illich’s attempt to lay a foundation for identifying these scales and clarifying the nature of the implied limits. “Present research,” he observed,
is overwhelmingly concentrated in two directions: research and development for breakthroughs to the better production of better wares and general systems analysis concerned with protecting man for further consumption. Future research ought to lead in the opposite direction; let us call it counterfoil research. Counterfoil research also has two major tasks: to provide guidelines for detecting the incipient stages of murderous logic in a tool; and to devise tools and tool systems that optimize the balance of life, thereby maximizing liberty for all.
Likewise, in Deschooling Society, Illich wrote, “We need research on the possible use of technology to create institutions which serve personal, creative, and autonomous interaction and the emergence of values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats.” “We need,” he adds, “counterfoil research to current futurology.”
Harder to get funding for counterfoil research, I suspect. But it is not hard to imagine how useful it might be. At the very least, we would do well to have in our critical toolkit the concept of a threshold beyond which the value of a tool or institution is jeopardized, beyond which, in fact, what had been good and useful becomes counter-productive and destructive.
Illich allows for great deal of latitude in how such an insight might be applied. It would be possible, in his view, for tools or institutions to have what he called “an optimal, a tolerable, and a negative range.” Furthermore, he acknowledged that different societies would have different goals and ends and, thus, different ways of arriving at an appropriate techno-social configuration. “The criteria of conviviality are to be considered as guidelines,” Illich wrote, “to a continuous process by which a society’s members defend their liberty, and not as a set of prescriptions which can be mechanically applied.”
But it was clear to Illich that we must acknowledge that such limits and scales exist. Written in the early 70s, Deschooling Society especially makes frequent use of an analogy to the American war effort in Vietnam. Illich refers to escalation as “the American way of doing things,” and he hardly means it as a compliment.
So, for example, in the closing lines of the first chapter of Tools for Conviviality, Illich writes, “It has become fashionable to say that where science and technology have created problems, it is only more scientific understanding and better technology that can carry us past them.” He goes on: “The pooling of stores of information, the building up of a knowledge stock, the attempt to overwhelm the present problems by the production of more science is the ultimate attempt to solve a crisis by escalation.”
Solving a crisis by escalation seems not to have gone out of fashion. It signals, of course, a failure of imagination, but also an institutional imperative. What can an institution possibly offer you except more of itself? For example, the one remedy for the problems it has unleashed that Facebook cannot contemplate is suspending operations. What is never questioned is the underlying ideology that connection is an unalloyed good and we always need more of it.
What this ignores is the possibility that, as Illich argued, beyond a certain threshold more, bigger, faster simply becomes counter-productive and then destructive. It is a possibility to which we ought to be critically attuned.
Tools to Work With
In Tools for Conviviality, Illich offered a simple proposition: “People need new tools to work with rather than tools that ‘work’ for them.” He goes on to add that people “need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well-programmed energy slaves.”
Underlying this claim was Illich’s belief that western societies made a fundamental mistake in conceiving of machines as providing an alternative to slave labor.
“Between the High Middle Ages and the Enlightenment,” Illich argued,
the alchemic dream misled many otherwise authentic Western humanists. The illusion prevailed that the machine was a laboratory-made homunculus, and that it could do our labor instead of slaves. It is now time to correct this mistake and shake off the illusion that men are born to be slaveholders and that the only thing wrong in the past was that not all men could be equally so.”
Earlier Illich had explained how “for a hundred years we have tried to make machines work for men and to school men for life in their service.” “Now it turns out” Illich observed, “that machines do not ‘work’ and that people cannot be schooled for a life at the service of machines. The hypothesis on which the experiment was built must now be discarded.” That hypothesis, according to Illich, “was that machines can replace slaves.” He added: “The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men.”
This claim—that we need tools to work with rather than tools that work for us—exemplifies what I read as Illich’s concern for human dignity and autonomy, properly understood. It is abundantly clear as you read Illich’s work that he was not interested in an abstract or disinterested critique of technology or industrial civilization. One of the blurbs that often ends up on Illich’s books is from the Times Educational Supplement. It is a snippet of a sentence that reads “… a famous and savage critic of industrial society …” This is true, but only because he was a fierce advocate for a particular vision of human flourishing, which, in his view, industrial society demolished. At least that is how I read Illich.
One aspect of this vision involved the ability of men and women to provide for themselves, to take responsibility for their health and learning, to be self-directed with regards to work they valued and found meaningful. “Progress should mean growing competence in self-care rather than growing dependence,” Illich believed. He believed, too, that the liberation promised by modern industrial society amounted to a profound deskilling of human beings and their consequent dependence upon institutions that increasingly dictated the terms of their worth relative to standards and criteria that had little or nothing to do with the good of the people they claimed to serve.
The point resonates today in light of present discussion of automation. Illich understood that if we proceed on the assumption that we need better tools to work for us, we will eventually end up “degraded to the status of mere consumers.” Consider how debates about the merits of automation and the potential of mass technological unemployment often play out. Others more learned than me about this matter are free to correct me, but among those who worry about such things it appears that two “solutions” present themselves. Either universal basic income kicks in to make up for permanently lost wages or else automation renders goods and services so cheap that lower wages are offset. In either case, individuals are presumed to be mere consumers whose well-being depends chiefly on their capacity to procure goods and experiences. A condition aptly summed up by Illich when he feared that we were traveling along a path that would lead to “a further increase of useful things for useless people.”
By contrast, Illich argued that “People feel joy, as opposed to mere pleasure, to the extent that their activities are creative; while the growth of tools beyond a certain point increases regimentation, dependence, exploitation, and impotence.”
In Illich’s view, this approach fails to reckon with what people actually need. Yes, there are certain goods and services that people undoubtedly need, and these needs vary from one place to another. People, however, need more than this. According to Illich, “they need above all the freedom to make the things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.”
We’ll get to that last line about caring for and about others in the final point below, but for now let us consider how Illich’s ideals are at odds with a technological milieu in which we feel ourselves increasingly caught in networks designed to ostensibly empower us but only by actually making us all the more dependent on their operations. The consequences were material and psychological. “Present institutional purposes, which hallow industrial productivity at the expense of convivial effectiveness,” Illich warned, “are a major factor in the amorphousness and meaninglessness that plague contemporary society.”
Considering this aspect of Illich’s argument, I was reminded of Walker Percy’s essay “The Loss of the Creature.” The essay is too rich to adequately summarize, but suffice it to say that, like Illich, Percy feared that having accepted their role as consumers, individuals ceded their sovereignty over their own experience. Percy opens by explaining why it is so difficult for the sightseer to actually see the Grand Canyon. In short, because the sightseer does not approach the Grand Canyon as a sovereign knower, he has unburdened himself of that role in order to assume the role of consumer, in which role he approaches the canyon as an experience that has been overdetermined for him by the park service, postcards, brochures, photographs, etc.
“The highest point, the term of the sightseer's satisfaction,” Percy argues, “is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex.”
But this was only one illustration of a more pervasive dynamic. “This loss of sovereignty,” Percy concludes,
is not a marginal process, as might appear from my example of estranged sightseers. It is a generalized surrender of the horizon to those experts within whose competence a particular segment of the horizon is thought to lie. Kwakiutls are surrendered to Franz Boas; decaying Southern mansions are surrendered to Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.
Percy, a bit further on, adds, “No matter what the object or event is, whether it is a star, a swallow, a Kwakiutl, a ‘psychological phenomenon,’ the layman who confronts it does not confront it as a sovereign person, as Crusoe confronts a seashell he finds on the beach.” Instead, Percy writes,
The highest role he can conceive himself as playing is to be able to recognize the title of the object, to return it to the appropriate expert and have it certified as a genuine find. He does not even permit himself to see the thing—as Gerard Hopkins could see a rock or a cloud or a field. If anyone asks him why he doesn't look, he may reply that he didn't take that subject in college (or he hasn't read Faulkner).
And with that last line, of course, Percy is, in the 1950s, anticipating elements of Illich’s critique of schooling. Indeed, he puts that matter more pointedly when he writes, “If we look into the ways in which the student can recover the dogfish (or the sonnet), we will see that they have in common the stratagem of avoiding the educator's direct presentation of the object as a lesson to be learned and restoring access to sonnet and dogfish as beings to be known, reasserting the sovereignty of knower over known.”
The confluence of Illich’s critique and Percy’s, becomes even more evident near the end of “The Loss of the Creature.” “The situation of the tourist at the Grand Canyon and the biology student,” Percy explains,
are special cases of a predicament in which everyone finds himself in a modem technical society-a society, that is, in which there is a division between expert and layman, planner and consumer, in which experts and planners take special measures to teach and edify the consumer. The measures taken are measures appropriate to the consumer: The expert and the planner know and plan, but the consumer needs and experiences.
Illich, who in the late 70s and early 80s wrote at length about what we might think of as the social construction of needs, and who, already in Deschooling Society, argued that the chief lesson of modern schooling is that we all need it and more of it, would readily agree with Percy. The chief difference, so far as I can see, is one of emphasis. Percy focuses on the surrender of experience to the intellectual class, Illich sees this same pattern at work in both the intellectual and material realms of human experience and abated by the nature of modern technology.
Illich’s response to this was his call for convivial tools, or tools “which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision.” “In any society,” Illich claimed, “as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.” This is because of a fundamental paradox in consumer society: consumer society excels at generating and ostensibly satisfying ever more trivial needs while simultaneously eviscerating our capacity to satisfy our deepest and most pressing needs.
The idea of autonomy or the self-sufficiency of the person is only one side of the coin, however. The other is the fact that, for Illich, our independence from paternalistic institutions and manipulative tools is for the sake of our mutual inter-dependence. In Tools for Conviviality he writes, “I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value.”
Industrial society had, in Illich’s view, deskilled us in the arts of both self-care and mutual care. Having outsourced care to institutions and the service industry, we were more helpless and more adrift, bereft not only of a measure of dignity but also of the deeply human consolations of giving and receiving help and comfort.
According to Illich, “People have a native capacity for healing, consoling, moving, learning, building their houses, and burying their dead.” Unfortunately, we had, in his view, ceded each of these capacities to the professional classes. What troubles me most about this development is not the loss of personal satisfactions and the sense of purpose that might arise from being useful to another. Rather, it is that these practices, which we hardly ever now undertake for one another, were also what we might think of as binding agents. Through my care for another I reach out beyond myself and even beyond the confines of my home to the wider community, to my neighbors.
My point here is that an experience of community is not so much a state to be inhabited as it is a condition to be achieved, and it is achieved by constant practice. By caring for my neighbor in a time of need, I forge a communal bond. My neighbor becomes less of an abstraction, he or she takes on flesh and blood as it were. Their history and my history are intertwined. We build up a narrative stock over time that further binds us in memory.
When we have outsourced all of our mutual care to institutions and professionals, these ties atrophy. We recede from a common world of mutual interdependence into our own private enclaves of consumption, unable either to care for ourselves or for our neighbors. Naturally, there are advantages to be gained by such a retreat. Mutual care can be hard, inconvenient, and possibly thankless work. It entails responsibilities and obligations. In Deschooling Society, Illich notes that “education for all means education by all.” Would we be prepared or willing to step into this role?
In the 60s and 70s, Illich had especially in view the schools, the medical profession, and the transportation industry. It is clear, however, that while these continue to inhibit the kind of capacity and skill in caring for one another that Illich prized, new challenges have presented themselves.
In the 79 theses he presented in “Attending to Technology,” Alan Jacobs, makes some important observations along these lines. He begins with a recent story that had been in the news:
When Danielle and Alexander Meitiv of Silver Spring, Maryland tried to teach their two children, ages six and ten, how to make their way home on foot from a mile away, the children were picked up by police and the parents charged with child neglect. Yet whether the Meitivs were right or wrong in the degree of responsibility they entrusted their children with, what they did is the opposite of neglect — it is thoughtful, intentional training of their children for responsible adulthood. They instructed their children with care and the children practiced responsible freedom before being fully entrusted with it. And then the state intervened before the lesson could be completed.
As Jacobs notes, the charges were eventually dropped, but Jacobs draws a powerful lesson from this episode. “I think this event is best described,” Jacobs explained, “as the state enforcing surveillance as the normative form of care.”
Jacobs goes on as follows:
But by enforcing surveillance as the normative form of care, the state effectively erases the significance of all other forms of care. Parents might teach their children nothing of value, no moral standards, no self-discipline, no compassion for others — but as long as those children are incessantly observed, then according to the state’s standards the parents of those children are good parents. And they are good because they are training their children to accept a lifetime of passive acceptance of surveillance.
I’m not sure if Jacobs would see as I do here a continuation of the kind of deskilling and outsourcing of care that Illich challenged so forcefully in the early 70s. But it seems to me that this episode and the rise of “surveillance as the normative form of care” both lie on a trajectory with those developments. Indeed, it seems to me that a recovery of Illich for the 21st century would involve just such an expansion of his argument. It would recognize how digital technology allowed institutions to further escalate their reach rather than reckon with the limits they had previously ignored. Already in the 70s, Illich perceived that modern institutions were entering a period of crisis, but he perceived an opportunity. “I believe that the present crisis of our major institutions ought to be welcomed as a crisis of revolutionary liberation,” Illich wrote.
“This world-wide crisis of world-wide institutions,” he added, “can lead to a new consciousness about the nature of tools and to majority action for their control. If tools are not controlled politically, they will be managed in a belated technocratic response to disaster.”
If these lines retain a sense of urgency, I would suggest it is because we are in a moment that was not unlike Illich’s. While digital technologies appeared as a radical challenge to analog institutions, they have also been used to prop up these old institutions, allowing them to persist in the mode of escalation. The manner in which they have been deployed has also amounted to a doubling down on the deskilling and alienation that was already underway under the regime of industrial age institutions. And now, we are once again confronted with a crisis of institutions. In some respects, it is a new crisis. But from another vantage point, it is the same crisis reignited after the digital extensions of analog institutions have reached their own limits.
Where does this leave us? I am personally struck by the persistence of the virtues of hospitality and friendship that run through Illich’s work. So I will give Illich the last words along these lines. In a conversation on Jerry Brown’s old radio show, Illich observed that in classical society, hospitality was “a condition consequent on a good society in politics.” Today, however, he believed that it “might be the starting point of politics.”
“But this is difficult,” he added
because hospitality requires a threshold over which I can lead you and TV, internet, newspaper, the idea of communication, abolished the walls and therefore also the friendship, the possibility of leading somebody over the door. Hospitality requires a table around which you can sit and if people get tired they can sleep … I do think that if I had to choose one word to which hope can be tied it is hospitality. A practice of hospitality recovering threshold, table, patience, listening, and from there generating seedbeds for virtue and friendship on the one hand. On the other hand radiating out for possible community, for rebirth of community.
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News and Resources
Kate Klonick on the Facebook oversight board.
Abeba Birhane on the algorithmic colonization of Africa.
Anthony Townsend on the hundred year history of self-driving cars.
Gil Kazimirov on how the ringtone “sparked the mobile revolution.”
Renee DiResta on crowds and technology.
Adrian Hon on what ARGs can teach us about QAnon.
Sophie Haigney’s elegy for the landline in literature.
Eric Levitz interviews Adam Tooze on the world after COVID-19.
Paul Levinson recalls how he met Marshall McLuhan.
— From “Neil Postman's Advice on How to Live the Rest of Your Life,” compiled by Janet Sternberg.
10. Keep your opinions to a minimum.
It is not necessary for you to have an opinion on every public issue. Although you may be entitled to have an opinion, you probably are not qualified to have an opinion on most matters. Although middle-class America seems to require an opinion on everything, you will find it liberating to say the phrase “I don’t know enough about it to form an opinion.”
11. Carefully limit the information input you will allow.
Too little information is dangerous, but so is too much. As a general rule, do not take in any more information after seven or eight o’clock at night. You need protection from the relentless flow of information in modern American culture.This principle, by the way, explains the popularity of watching TV reruns, which provide amusement without new information.
12. Seek significance in your work, friends, and family, where potency and output are still possible.
Work, friends, and family are the areas where what you think and do matters. Avoid thinking too much about matters you cannot do anything about. It may help to remember that information used to be a survival necessity, not a commodity. Information used to be an agent or instrument for action, but nowadays, information is often inert — you cannot act on it. Thinking too much about things you cannot affect makes you feel impotent and trivia-centered. Try to dump useless information from your head.
— In a recent piece on language and brain-to-brain interfaces, Mark Dingemanse observed, “There is a fitting Zulu saying here: Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, or ‘A person is a person through other people.’” This recalled part of an exchange among Ivan Illich, Carl Mitcham, and Jerry Brown on a radio show Brown used to host in the 1990s. Here is Illich, discussing his then-recent work on Hugh of St. Victor, speaking about seeing himself in the pupil of another’s eye:
It is you making me the gift of that which Ivan is for you. That's the one who says "I" here. I'm purposely not saying, this is my person, this is my individuality, this is my ego. No. I'm saying this is the one who answers you here, whom you have given to him. This is how Hugh explains it here. This is how the rabbinical traditional explains it. That I cannot come to be fully human unless I have received myself as a gift and accepted myself as a gift of somebody who has, well today we say distorted me the way you distorted me by loving me. Now, friendship in the Greek tradition, in the Roman tradition, in the old tradition, was always viewed as the highest point which virtue can reach. Virtue meaning here the habitual facility of doing the good thing which is fostered by what the Greeks called politaea, political life, community life. I know it was a political life in which I wouldn't have liked to participate, with the slaves around and with the women excluded, but I still have to go to Plato or to Cicero. They conceived of friendship as a flowering, a supreme flowering of the interaction which happens in a good political society. This is what makes long experience so painful with you that every time we are together you make me feel most uncomfortable about my not being like you. I know it's not my vocation. It's your vocation. Structuring community and society in a political way. But I do not believe that friendship today can flower out, can come out, of political life. I do believe that if there is something like a political life to be, to remain for us, in this world of technology, then it begins with friendship. Therefore my task is to cultivate disciplined, self-denying, careful, tasteful friendships. Mutual friendships always. I and you and I hope a third one, out of which perhaps community can grow. Because perhaps here we can find what the good is. To make it short, while once friendship in our western tradition was the supreme flower of politics I do think that if community life if it exists at all today it is in some way the consequence of friendship cultivated by each one who initiates it. This is of course a challenge to the idea of democracy which goes beyond anything which people usually talk about, saying each one of you is responsible for the friendships he can develop because society will be as good as the political result of these friendships will be.
— Wendell Berry on freedom and friendship:
In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define “freedom,” for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom in Words, “free” is etymologically related to “friend.” These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of “dear” or “beloved.” We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. And this suggests that our “identity” is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.
I don’t think you were checking your inbox each morning with bated breath wondering if the Convivial Society would ever appear there again, but perhaps you’ve noted that this installment is coming in rather late. Life happens, as they say, sometimes a lot of it all at once. It’s been one of those months—nothing terribly bad mind you, indeed, some very welcome developments mostly, but draining nonetheless. Suffice it to say, you have my apologies for this late issue and my commitment to still get a second installment out before the month closes.
Trust you all are well.