The Convivial Society, No. 1
Finding Our Bearings
"I choose the term 'conviviality' to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man−made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society's members."
— Ivan Illich
Lately, I've been thinking about the idea of finding and losing one's bearings. To lose one's bearings, to discover that you are not only lost but also unable to determine how to get un-lost is unnerving, and, it seems, an apt analogy for our collective situation. So how do we find our bearings? How do we achieve an adequate sense of where we are and, more importantly perhaps, how to get where we want to go?
When we lose our bearings it's often because our vision is too narrowly focused on our immediate, unfamiliar surroundings. To find our bearings, we might move about until familiar landmarks come into focus. Alternatively, we might consult a map, providing we have one, that allows us to see our location from a different vantage point. Or perhaps, if we were so skilled, we might look to the sky in order to ascertain our position. In these cases, we expand our vision in order to figure out where we are and, if we know where we want to go, how to proceed.
As it is in physical space, so it is, by analogy, in our experience more generally. If we want to get our bearings, we need to see more than what is available to us in the immediate moment. Only by framing our moment within a longer history, as a point on an unfolding trajectory, can we hope to make some modest sense of it.
As I was writing, I read a short post from Alan Jacobs addressing this dynamic. "You can’t understand the place and time you’re in by immersion," Jacobs observed, "the opposite’s true." He goes on: "You have to step out and away and back and forward, through books and art and music, and you have to do it regularly. Then you come back to the Here and Now, and say: Ah. That’s how it is." Very few people will do this. Most of us will remain "creatures of this particular intersection in spacetime." And, with our vision so narrowly focused, we will find ourselves disoriented, our bearings lost.
One of my goals for this newsletter is to help us, with regards to our thinking about technology, to avoid the disorientation of the immediate. We should, of course, give due attention to what is happening now, but this attention will be of little consequence if we do not know what to make of what we learn or what we ought to do in response.
Of course, I have no illusions about the degree of clarity and direction that we can achieve. However, I do think we'll be more likely to get our bearings if we expand our vision by, as Jacobs put it, "stepping out and away and back and forward." The first move toward this end requires a measure of ascesis; we need to discipline our desire to keep up with every bit of hyperreality that daily harasses our attention. The second is to discover and turn toward alternative sources of not only knowledge but also experience, to somehow discover fresh vantage points from which to expand our vision and possibly find our bearings.
What that means is that I'll be sparing in what I pass along for your consideration and I will include sources, some of them old and out of fashion, which will, I hope, not only deepen our understanding but also renew our imagination and possibly even point us in better directions.
News and Resources
In Politico, Molly K. McKew examines #releasethememo as a case study in computational propaganda.
The Verge reports on facial recognition glasses being deployed by Chinese police to track travelers during the Lunar New Year migration.
In Our Hackable Political Future, Henry Farrell and Rick Perlstein explore the dark potential of digitally generated fake video and audio that is practically indistinguishable from the real thing.
Frank Pasquale is one of our best guides through the sometimes murky intersections of law, technology, and politics. Here are two recent pieces from Pasquale: Secret Algorithms Threaten the Rule of Law and From Territorial to Functional Sovereignty: The Case of Amazon.
“Digital technology, AI included, has appropriated the discourse about hope,” Luciano Floridi, quoted in Thomas MacMullan's The Word of God: How AI Is Deified in the Age of Secularism (part 3 of an intriguing 4 part series of essays).
Mark Coeckelbergh and Michael Funk consider Wittgenstein as a Philosopher of Technology (PDF).
As Ivan Illich has noted, institutions are tools of a sort, which may be more or less convivial. We do well to re-examine not only our devices but our institutions, and Chad Wellmon has been doing excellent work on this front with regards to the university. Here is his latest, The Modest University.
This newsletter's title alludes to both Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society and Ivan Illich's Tools for Conviviality, so it seems appropriate to cite a 1993 talk given by Illich on what the work of Ellul meant to him:
"Therefore, it appears to me that we cannot neglect the disciplined recovery, an asceticism, of a sensual praxis in a society of technogenic mirages. This reclaiming of the senses, this promptitude to obey experience, the chaste look that the Rule of St. Benedict opposes to the cupiditas oculorum (lust of the eyes), seems to me to be the fundamental condition for renouncing that technique which sets up a definitive obstacle to friendship."
You can read the rest here.
Finally, in Tools for Conviviality, a work that is bracing in its challenge to consider what it might mean to forge a more humane post-industrial society, Illich wrote the following:
"In the past, convivial life for some inevitably demanded the servitude of others. Labor efficiency was low before the steel ax, the pump, the bicycle, and the nylon fishing line. Between the High Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, 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. By reducing our expectations of machines, however, we must guard against falling into the equally damaging rejection of all machines as if they were works of the devil.
A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others. 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."
As I am sure most of you know, Ursula K. Le Guin passed away last month. I cannot claim any deep familiarity with her work, something which perhaps in time I might be able to remedy, but I have been thinking a good deal about her short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." The choice at the heart of the story is stark and haunting. If you've not read it, I encourage you to do so. I'll say no more about it here except that I think it may imaginatively embody our situation more than we would be comfortable admitting. I've come to believe, anyway, that we must at least be willing to contemplate the possibility of walking away.
Unlike Omelas, a bounded city with well-defined borders, our society is not a place we can walk away from in any literal sense. Rather, I think the contemplation of the possibility, perhaps the necessity of walking away entails our willingness to consider a deep re-ordering of our priorities, needs, and commitments. If we cannot at least entertain the possibility, I do not think that very much will change. Finding our bearings, after all, will not mean very much if we are unwilling to take up the journey before us.
I was surprised, frankly, by how many of you subscribed for this newsletter. It was rather humbling and not a little paralyzing. This is a curious medium, it affords a slightly more intimate space than writing for a mostly anonymous and indeterminate audience. I hope to grow into that space in time. For now, I am at least convinced that this is a more convivial tool than either Twitter or Facebook. You can read at your pleasure (or not at all) and there's no reason to enter into a coercive and demoralizing platform to do so. I hope you enjoy.
Your replies will come to my inbox, so do feel free to offer your comments and feedback. This being the inaugural installment ofThe Convivial Society, I expect that tweaks and refinements will be forthcoming and I'm happy to work these out in conversation with you. I hesitate to commit to a regular schedule for now, but I am thinking about something close to a twice-monthly rate.