Ill With Want

The Convivial Society: Vol. 2, No. 13

Welcome to an off-the-cuff installment of the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and society, broadly speaking. If you’ve been reading for a while, I think the tone of this installment may come off as rather different than the usual fare; I confess a not so subtle frustration runs through it. I should note, though, that it is not aimed at anyone in particular, except perhaps myself. And I know, too, that there are many to whom nothing of what follows would fairly apply. So, read ahead with this in mind. If it is helpful, great. If not, carry on.


“I am sick of wanting and it’s evil how it’s got me
And every day is worse than the one before.
The more I have the more I think I'm almost where I need to be
If only I could get a little more …

Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed.”

— the Avett Brothers


I recorded a conversation for a podcast this week, which I’m eager to pass along to you once it’s posted. I’m almost getting used to the experience, although I’m rarely pleased with my own contributions. This is all on me, of course. My interactions with podcast hosts have been uniformly positive, and my latest exchange was no exception. But I tend to replay in my head the bits where I know I could’ve said things more clearly or where I remember too late a better example or a more compelling argument. Basically, I appreciate the space writing ordinarily creates for thinking deliberately and expressing yourself clearly, and occasionally I’m a bit uncomfortable beyond it.

Sometimes, too, I find myself just wanting to continue the conversation after a period of further reflection. There was one case in particular from this week’s exchange that’s stayed on my mind more so than usual, and, because I can’t pick up that conversation again in the same way, I’m going to trouble you all with the train of thought that has nowhere else to go.

Toward the end of our time, my host made what I thought was a keen observation about how we’ve come to think about our desires in modern western societies compared to other cultures and traditions, past and present. Generally speaking, we’re less likely to judge our desires negatively or conclude that they ought to be deferred, circumscribed, or even possibly denied. I readily agreed that this was the case, so far as I could judge, and, of course, that technology had been a critical element of this revaluation of desire.

In the moment, I cast about for some lines that I couldn’t quite call to mind, and I later recalled that they were from Lewis’s discussion of magic and technology (or what he calls “applied science”) in The Abolition of Man.

“You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away,” Lewis observed. But as a scholar of the Renaissance, Lewis knew this was not the case:

“Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse.

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique …”

This is as eloquent and concise a characterization of the spirit animating the early modern techno-scientific project as you’re likely to find. Or, as Lewis Mumford put it in Technics and Civilization, “magic was the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfillment.”

But it was more than the historical observation about the character of modern technology that impressed itself upon me. It was, rather, how this impulse had been transmuted under the aegis of the consumer economy, the very principle of which is that what we want, we should have. In fact, one might even make the case that the chief product of a consumer economy is manufactured desire or discontent.

Then, of course, I got to thinking about Ivan Illich. Remarkably, I didn’t mention Illich by name until the closing minutes of the podcast conversation. But, had I the presence of mind, I would have inserted him right at this point that I’ve been revisiting concerning desire and wanting.

Illich understood what I think most of us are unwilling to accept. Endless wanting will wreck us and also the world that is our home. By contrast, our economic order and the ostensible health of our society is premised on the generation of insatiable desires, chiefly for consumer goods and services. Your contentment and mine would wreak havoc on the existing order of things. “That’s enough, thanks,” is arguably a radical sentiment. Only by the perpetual creation of novel needs and desires can economic growth be sustained given how things presently operate.1 So just about every aspect of our culture is designed to make us think that happiness, or something like it, always lies on the other side of more.

This happens in countless ways, obvious and otherwise. Naturally, the advertising industry comes to mind, as does the shape to which it has bent the internet and consumer technology, the evident goal of so much of which is to induce a state of thoughtless, automated consumption. In a recent newsletter, “The Shopping Cure,” Anne Helen Petersen explored the compulsion to buy and accumulate stuff that’s been fostered by technologies of frictionless consumption. Every conceivable activity or hobby one sets out to enjoy becomes an occasion to buy stuff: “They transform from sites of actual pleasure and diversion to means of self-betterment, performance, and constant improvement, even if that ‘leveling up’ is manifested solely through the constant acquisition of gear.”

But, alongside of the crass consumerism we might associate with the ad industry—to which, of course, we likely fancy ourselves immune—we need to add all the forms of manufactured neediness targeted by Illich, who claimed that “in a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.”2 These would be, to repurpose a phrase, the ideal subjects of a consumerist regime.

In Illich’s view, modern institutions—including, for example, education, transportation, and medicine—had the (possibly unintended) consequence of deskilling the person and generating dependence on professionalized services. “Deskilling” is my word. Illich talked about a loss of competence and autonomy (always, though, in the service of mutual inter-dependence). We must come to believe that there is, in fact, very little that we can do for ourselves. We must learn to turn to professionals and institutions for every possible need or problem we encounter. Our communities, too, must be uprooted so that we do not discover the possibility that certain of our needs might be best met by the goodwill of our neighbors, because, after all, that won’t grow the GDP. The vernacular domain, Illich’s term for “the activities of people when they are not motivated by thoughts of exchange,” must be stamped out. Indeed, we must come to believe that wanting more forever, and wanting what only others can supply for a price, is just the natural human condition rather than a culturally induced proclivity or compulsion.

Ultimately, Illich came to believe that little would get better—for the environment, for society, for our own personal well-being—unless we could critically reconsider and overturn the dominant cultural “certainties” underwriting modern institutional and social life. And one of these certainties, crudely put, is that we need more, with an emphasis on both need and more. Illich, I believe, would have us question both the idea that we need more and that we need at all. Or to put this differently, he would at least have us think critically about the nature and source of our ostensible neediness.3

Illich puts this quite forcibly and memorably in the opening paragraphs of Deschooling Society, where he writes that “the institutionalization of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence: three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernized misery.” “I will explain,” he goes on to say, “how this process of degradation is accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities.”

Strikingly, a variation of the reduction of the person to a mere consumer appears in some of the rhetoric about the future of AI and automation. If you listen to some of those who presume that automation will eliminate a significant swath of jobs, you’ll find that the purported upshot will be really cheap stuff, and maybe you throw in UBI to make sure people can get a minimal amount of that cheap stuff. Just now I’m less intersted in the questionable viability of these claims than I am in the underlying assumption that people could, and perhaps should, be satisfied with a life defined by cheap stuff and endless entertainment. As Illich also put it, “There will be a further increase of useful things for useless people.”

Don’t miss that line about nonmaterial needs being transformed into demands for commodities. I’ve mentioned it before, but let’s pause over it one more time. This is one of the most perverse effects of contemporary society. People need food, water, shelter, etc. These are, of course, material needs we cannot do without. Profound suffering accompanies their absence. But there are other critical needs which are nonmaterial in nature and thus cannot be simply manufactured and distributed. Your list and mine of what these might be will differ in the details of the enumeration, but I suspect we would both agree that such needs exist and that their absence also entails profound suffering. Material deprivations manifest materially. You can see when someone is being starved. Nonmaterial deprivations typically manifest non-materially. Someone who looks perfectly healthy may bear a crushing load of loneliness, desperation, or anxiety. I would argue that while modern societies may be particularly adept at the satisfaction of material needs4, they are also structured so that nonmaterial needs are more likely go unmet. These two tendencies are not unrelated. The relative degree of success on the material front depends upon conditions that undermine the satisfaction of nonmaterial needs.

Meanwhile, junk piles up everywhere, usually and conveniently just out of sight for most of the consumer class, in landfills that spew methane into an already compromised global ecosystem and in our oceans and waterways. Very little is built to last. Consume, dispose, repeat is the order of the day. Farmers have to fight for the right to repair their own equipment. The art and practice of maintenance atrophies.5 The average home has almost tripled in size over the last half century, and, despite this, storage facilities proliferate in suburban settings to accommodate all the stuff that doesn’t fit in these expansive homes. And every purported cure to this problem involves another services, another purchase, another technique proffered by a professional class or the influencer set.

This is, frankly, no way to live. In the 1970’s, Illich foresaw two alternatives: “Faced with these impending [ecological/social] disasters, society can stand in wait of survival within limits set and enforced by bureaucratic dictatorship. Or it can engage in a political process by the use of legal and political procedures.” But even then, Illich knew the prospects were dim: “Ideologically biased interpretations of the past have made the recognition of political process increasingly difficult.” Moreover, he argued, liberty had come to mean a right to unlimited access to modern technologies and their products.

In later years, he would come to believe that the problem ran much deeper than even he had understood. It was built into patterns of thought and cultural trajectories that were centuries in the making, generating “certainties” that were incredibly difficult to overturn. Nonetheless, the stark clarity of the options he laid out in the early 70s remains compelling. On the one hand, there was what Illich termed “managerial fascism,” the “bureaucratic management of human survival,” which he found “unacceptable on both ethical and political grounds.”

On the other hand, there was the unlikely possibility that people might turn to what Illich called a convivial rather than industrial mode of production and accept the sacrifices this entailed. “To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits,” Illich argued. “Once these limits are recognized,” he concluded, “it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call ‘convivial.’” These limits would certainly mean that we must refuse the key axiom of consumer society: what we want, we should have.

“This price cannot be extorted by some despotic Leviathan,” Illich cautioned, “nor elicited by social engineering.” Instead, he believed that “people will rediscover the value of joyful sobriety and liberating austerity only if they relearn to depend on each other rather than on energy slaves.” Energy slaves was Illich’s unique term for technologies that were designed to work for us rather than for us to work with. Meaningful, self-directed work was, in Illich’s view, one of those nonmaterial needs that were essential to human well-being.

There are many critical tasks before us. But, it seems to me, few are more important than confronting and inverting the assumptions about human well-being, which presently order consumer society. I know many will argue that changing individual behavior is a naive and insufficient response to any of the various dimensions of the present crisis. I don’t know, honestly. That’s true enough in certain respects. But it seems to me that a more profound naiveté sustains the idea that things will get better without a radical reordering at a massive scale of how we, the relatively comfortable and affluent, live our lives. Of course, it’s much easier to believe that all will be well and that we can carry on more or less as we have. As James Hunter once wrote in a very different context, “We want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.”

Illich is sometimes taken to be a hopelessly impractical thinker whose proposals could never be implemented in the so-called “real world.” Perhaps, but this tends to ignore the possibility that he was nonetheless right. It is also the case that Illich is sometimes read as a dour critic of modern industrial society eager to return us to some pre-modern age. This misses the point entirely. Illich was not a romantic, and he is often explicit about the futility of romanticizing the past. But even more importantly, the apparent severity, from the perspective of consumerist assumptions, was, in fact, a pathway to the experience of life-giving community, environmental health, meaningful work, social solidarity, and personal well-being. The austerity he championed (following Thomas Aquinas not 21st century technocrats) is a precondition for friendship and joyfulness, and its end is eutrapelia, or graceful playfulness.

1

I’m reminded of Harmut Rosa’s claim that “the basic institutional structure of modern society can be maintained only through constant escalation.” Modern society according to Rosa “is one that can stabilize itself only dynamically, in other words one that requires constant economic growth, technological acceleration, and cultural innovation in order to maintain its institutional status quo.”

2

Illich quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from Tools for Conviviality.

3

Illich’s longtime friend Dan Grego—a professional educator, mind you—related a relevant story when we spoke last year. During a walk he took with Illich while both were attending a conference, Illich asked Dan, “Why do we think we need to be educated?” As he relayed the story to me, Dan said that he assumed Illich meant something like “Why do we think we need ‘schooling’?”in the sense Illich had famously critiqued. Illich clarified: No, he meant it in the more basic, straightforward sense. Dan told me that he’s never stopped thinking about that exchange. Make of it what you will. I haven’t stopped thinking about either.

4

Although even these are not justly allocated and deep inequalities persist.

5

I recently spoke with an elderly family friend from South America, who delights in fashioning clothing, jewelry, and other crafts. She was struck by how little people make for themselves or take the time to repair and restore in American society.