The Human-Built World Is Not Built For Humans

The Convivial Society: Vol. 2, No. 19

“I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a life style which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a life style which only allows us to make and unmake, produce and consume—a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment.”

— Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. It’s been a while since the last installment. I worked on an essay for some time, but ultimately it did not come together quite the way I had hoped. Instead, I’m going to take three ideas in that unwieldy draft and spin them out as a series of relatively brief reflections that I’ll send out in the coming days. This is the first. Also, I’m including some reading recommendations with each of these. I hope you find them helpful.

A few days ago, a story was circulating about how the infrastructure bill, which was recently passed by the House of Representatives, included funding for research on beacons to be worn by cyclists and pedestrians to make them legible to autonomous vehicles. A story in Forbes noted that the bill “formalizes the acceptance of so-called ‘vehicle to everything’ (V2X) technology that, on the face of it, promises enhanced safety on the roads for pedestrians and cyclists.”

Each time I’ve read something about how we will all have to wear sensors to survive the envisioned future transportation environment, a particular paragraph from Illich’s Deschooling Society has come to mind: “Contemporary man,” Illich wrote, “attempts to create the world in his image, to build a totally man-made environment, and then discovers that he can do so only on the condition of constantly remaking himself to fit it.”

Illich wrote these words in the early 1970s, long before beacons to keep cyclists and pedestrians safe from autonomous vehicles would become a policy priority. But the pattern was already evident. In the same essay, Illich told the following anecdote:

I know a Mexican village through which not more than a dozen cars drive each day. A Mexican was playing dominoes on the new hard-surface road in front of his house — where he had probably played and sat since his youth. A car sped through and killed him. The tourist who reported the event to me was deeply upset, and yet he said: “The man had it coming to him.”

The assumption in the tourist’s statement is clear and brutal: it is the responsibility of humans to adapt to their technical milieu. For the sake of a development he likely neither needed or desired, this man’s environment was transformed so as to render it hostile to him, but it is somehow his fault for failing to promptly adapt himself to the new reality. As Illich notes, there’s not even an air of the tragic in the tourist’s claim. One can imagine some not-too-distant future when a cyclist is struck and killed by an autonomous vehicle and an observer declares, “Well, she wasn’t even wearing her beacon, so she had it coming to her.”

As I thought about Illich’s anecdote, my own parental anxiety to convey to my children the importance of minding the cars around them at all times appeared in a new light. When one remembers that it has not always been necessary to carefully train a child, with ritualistic precision, just so that they can walk about without fear of mortal injury, then the whole thing takes on a rather absurd and malicious character.

Once you see this dynamic in one set of circumstances, you start to see it again and again. In innumerable ways we bend ourselves to fit the pattern of a techno-economic order that exists for its own sake and not for ours. As another example, consider Illich’s observations in 2000 about what is required of those who would pursue a successful career:

Modern citizens who want to pursue a successful career face a situation that is without clear boundaries or limits, and this prevents them from recognizing an alternative to their self-directed ‘lifelong learning and decision-making.’ Their comings and goings, their progress and well-being, their flourishing and ruination depend on their adaptation to diverse systems. In particular, they have to learn to function and compete in symbiosis with current economic conditions. A tolerant acceptance of these conditions is no longer enough. One has to learn to identify with them. In the mills of the new economy, where positioning is all, the grit is supposed to grind itself so fine that it becomes grease for the gears.

Or consider Shannon Mattern’s observation that “our phones seem to be contrived for circadian contradiction.” A reminder that our own technologically induced patterns of restlessness can be profoundly unhealthy. Our phones, after all, function as an interface between us and a vast network of communication and commerce: in practice, do they principally serve our interests or those of the network?

As the ways that we are schooled for life in a system that in significant ways runs counter to our own interests and well-being become more apparent, then Illich’s more radical claims begin to sound plausible if not altogether sensible.

In Tools for Conviviality, for example, we encounter this stark summation of Illich’s view of industrial society:

Increasing manipulation of man becomes necessary to overcome the resistance of his vital equilibrium to the dynamic of growing industries; it takes the form of educational, medical, and administrative therapies. Education turns out competitive consumers; medicine keeps them alive in the engineered environment they have come to require; bureaucracy reflects the necessity of exercising social control over people to do meaningless work. The parallel increase in the cost of the defense of new levels of privilege through military, police, and insurance measures reflects the fact that in a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.

Maybe this comes off as rather extreme. After all, Illich is arguing that the modern world, circa 1974 at least, is fundamentally hostile to human well-being and that some of its most vaunted institutions were basically coping and conditioning mechanisms.

Jacques Ellul, with passing reference to learning how to navigate street traffic, argues similarly:

“At the same time, one should not forget the fact that human beings are themselves already modified by the technical phenomenon […] Their whole education is oriented toward adaptation to the conditions of technique (learning how to cross streets at traffic lights) and their instruction is destined to prepare them for entrance into some technical employment. Human beings are psychologically modified by consumption, by technical work, by news, by television, by leisure activities (currently, the proliferation of computer games), etc., all of which are techniques. In other words, it must not be forgotten that it is this very humanity which has been pre-adapted to and modified by technique that is supposed to master and reorient technique. It is obvious that this will not be able to be done with any independence.”

But this is why I read writers like Illich and Ellul, and why I encourage others to do the same: for the sake of a thoroughgoing critique that will make me think more deeply, and uncomfortably, about our situation and my own acquiescence and complicity. I find that my vision tends to be too narrowly focused on surface-level symptoms. And it is too easy to take refuge in the thought that a few tweaks here and a little regulation there will make all things well, or at least significantly better. Meanwhile, nothing quite changes. Then along comes someone like Illich or Ellul claiming that maybe the whole modern techno-social order, whatever its relative merits, is broken and malignant. That the roots of our problems run much deeper than we had assumed. That we are, in truth, doing it all wrong and should revisit some of our most fundamental assumptions. You may not, in the end, agree with their conclusions, but seriously considering their perspectives should at least help us to ask better, more fundamental questions about the human-built world, or, perhaps more importantly, about the beliefs, values, and interests that shape it.

What Illich and Ellul would have us consider is that the human-built world is not, in fact, built for humans. And, of course, this is to say nothing of what the human-built world has meant for the non-human world. What’s more, it may be paradoxically the case that the human-built world will prove finally inhospitable to human beings precisely to the degree that it was built for humans without regard for humanity’s continuity with the other animals and the world we inhabit together.


News and Resources

  • “Be THERE Now” by Livia Foldes:

    “This dream [of telepresence] insists that technology will let (some of) us have it both ways: embodiment without proximity, knowledge without danger, pleasure without risk, and power without exposure. And it has been remarkably resilient, used to redefine everything from the nature of work, to the boundaries of warfare, to the contours of intimacy during a plague.”

  • “The Body Is Not a Machine” by Nitin K. Ahuja:

    “Conventional clinical readers might be rolling their eyes by now, assuming they’ve made it this far. Fair enough. Interpretive liberties are a risky proposition in healthcare, particularly at a political moment when scientific authority is already under heavy scrutiny. Of late, however, I’ve become increasingly compelled by the patients whose symptoms I can’t ever quite explain. Their intuitions make sense to me lately, in spirit if not always in substance, despite often running counter to most of what I’ve learned since medical school. Broken bodies move inevitably through a broken world. More and more, I’m likewise troubled by what feels like deep pathology sitting just beyond the reach of my clinic.”

  • Brad East offers a reading of Wendell Berry that contends with the criticisms leveled by George Scialabba:

    “The industrial economy is thus the paradigm, for Berry, of technocracy understood as the generic application of Thinking Big from nowhere to anywhere and everywhere. Such “thinking” is nothing of the kind: it is the abdication of thought, which properly takes shape in particular interactions between actual persons and the concrete objects and environments that make their lives possible—“our only world,” as he calls it. Technocracy is “machine thought.” Some presume the solution to the problems of technocracy must be more of the same, only the good variety rather than the bad. Berry demurs: technocracy as such is the errant mode of thinking and acting for which we need an alternative. It cannot save itself. It is what got us into this mess.”

  • Zachary Loeb supplies an excellent introduction to the work of Lewis Mumford. The title of Loeb’s essay, “The Magnificent Bribe,” is taken from this striking paragraph in Mumford’s “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics”:

    “The bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe. Under the democratic-authoritarian social contract, each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus he may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education. But on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered, duly processed and fabricated, homogenized and equalized, in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires. Once one opts for the system no further choice remains. In a word, if one surrenders one’s life at source, authoritarian technics will give back as much of it as can be mechanically graded, quantitatively multiplied, collectively manipulated and magnified.”

  • In a conversation with Clive Thompson, philosopher Evan Selinger shows us “How To Recognize When Tech Is Leading Us Down a ‘Slippery Slope’:

    Clive: But you think sometimes there really are technological slippery slopes — tech that pushes us in a bad direction really strongly. How can you tell when we’re facing a real slippery slope technology? What makes that technology have such power?

    Evan: You need to talk about affordances and incentives. What affordances does the technology have? And what incentives does it offer people?

  • From 2015, Lee Vinsel offered his “95 Theses on Innovation.” Not sure if they were ever nailed to a door somewhere in Silicon Valley:

    1. Innovation is the central ideology of our age. Its core assumption is that technological change is the key to both economic growth and quality of life.

    49.  The root of our problem is that we treat innovation as a basic value, like courage, love, charity, and diligence. In reality, innovation is simply the process by which new things enter wide circulation in the world. Innovation has nothing to say about whether these new things are beneficial or harmful.

    95.  The fall of innovation-speak will be a chance to reorient our society around values that actually matter. Will we seize this opportunity? Or will we allow corporate executives and other elites to seduce us with another wave of shiny, sparkling nonsense? The most radical thought is that there are principles beyond usefulness, beyond utility.


— In a recent post, Marianne Bellotti raised a series of questions: “However, when it comes to the issue of making AI safe we’re left with the question: Who is the operator in the first place? Is the operator the machine learning engineer who builds and trains the model? How much experience does that person have? What baseline knowledge must all AI engineers prove mastery over? What are the relevant degrees or credentials?”

These in turn brought to mind an essay by Paul Goodman written in 1969, “Can Technology Be Humane” (paywalled, I’m afraid). In it, Goodman claimed that “Whether or not it draws on new scientific research technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science.” Goodman, in the paragraph that Bellotti’s questions brought to mind, also argued the following:

“[…] technology must have its proper place on the faculty as a learned profession important in modern society, along with medicine, law, the humanities, and natural philosophy, learning from them and having something to teach them. As a moral philosopher, a technician should be able to criticize the programs given him to implement. As a professional in a community of learned professionals, a technologist must have a different kind of training and develop a different character than we see at present among technicians and engineers. He should know something of the social sciences, law, the fine arts, and medicine, as well as relevant natural sciences.”


“Prudence is foresight, caution, utility. Thus it is up to the technologists, not to regulatory agencies of the government, to provide for safety and to think about remote effects. This is what Ralph Nader is saying and Rachel Carson used to ask. An important aspect of caution is flexibility, to avoid the pyramiding catastrophe that occurs when something goes wrong in interlocking technologies, as in urban power failures. Naturally, to take responsibility for such things often requires standing up to the front office and urban politicians, and technologists must organize themselves in order to have power to do it.”

I recently contributed an essay to the latest issue of The Side View, “Surviving the Show: The New Asceticism of Ivan Illich.” I also did an enjoyable interview with Uri Bram of The Browser. On Uri’s suggestion we talked about instant messenger over instant messenger. You can read the exchange here.

As always, I trust this finds you all well and healthy.