What Do Human Beings Need?: Rethinking Technology and the Good Society


“The substance of the good life must be taken into consideration if radical political reform is to become a live option.”

— Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (1984)

In 1943, Simone Weil, the French philosopher and activist who was living in England at the time, was tasked by the Free French government with writing a report exploring how French society might be revitalized after its liberation from Nazi Germany. Despite suffering from debilitating headaches and generally poor health, Weil completed her work during a remarkable burst of activity. She died later that year at the age of 34. The report was published in 1949. The first English translation appeared in 1952 as The Need for Roots: prelude towards a declaration of duties towards mankind.

I was immediately struck by how Weil began her report. In the midst of a global cataclysm of unprecedented scope and scale, tasked with drawing up plans for the renewal of society, she begins by arguing for the primacy of human obligations rather than human rights. The very first sentence reads: “The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former.” Quite the claim coming from a French thinker, as she is well aware. As Weil sees it, rights are ineffective so long as no one recognizes a corresponding obligation, and obligations are always grounded in our common humanity. “Duty toward the human being as such—that alone is eternal,” she writes.

Our obligations toward our fellow human beings, Weil goes on to argue, “correspond to the list of such human needs as are vital, analogous to hunger.” Some of these needs are physical, of course—housing, clothing, security, etc.—but Weil identified another set of needs, which she described as having to do not with the “physical side” of life but with what she calls its “moral side.” The non-physical needs “form … a necessary condition of our life on this earth.” In her view, if these needs are not satisfied, “we fall little by little into a state more or less resembling death.” And while she acknowledges that these needs are “much more difficult to recognize and to enumerate than are the needs of the body,” she believes “every one recognizes they exist.”

I’m inclined to believe that Weil is right about this. As she suggests, “everyone knows that there are forms of cruelty which can injure a man’s life without injuring his body.” Weil goes on to call for an investigation into what these vital needs might be. They should be enumerated and defined, and she warns that “they must never be confused with desires, whims, fancies and vices.” Finally, she believes that “the lack of any such investigation forces governments, even when their intentions are honest, to act sporadically and at random.”

Naturally, the rest of the work is an attempt to provide just such an enumeration and discussion of these vital needs with the express purpose of supplying a foundation for the rebuilding of French society. She deals briefly with a set fourteen such needs before turning to a longer discussion of “rootedness” and “uprootedness,” which opens with this well-known claim: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”

I like to pair this claim with Hannah Arendt’s discussion of loneliness, alienation, and superfluousness, which, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she identifies as ideal conditions for the emergence of totalitarian regimes. “Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances,” Arendt wrote, “we watch the development of the same phenomena—homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.”

Combining Weil and Arendt, then, we might say that to the degree that the need for rootedness—which is to say, a sense of belonging in relatively stable communities—goes unfulfilled, to that same degree human beings become vulnerable to destructive political regimes.

My aim here, however, is not to discuss the merits of Weil’s particular enumeration of these vital needs. Rather, it is simply to recommend that we, too, undertake a similar radical analysis, recalling, of course, that our word radical comes to us from radix, the Latin word for roots. While our circumstances in 2020 are certainly not Weil’s in 1943, it does appear to me that we are, nonetheless, in a time of cascading crises and that our most urgent need is to figure out not how to shore up the old order but rather start something anew—perhaps a renewed humanism premised not upon human exceptionalism and self-sufficiency but rather upon human needs, interdependence, and mutual obligations.

Manufactured Neediness

You’ll not be surprised to learn that this talk about needs immediately brings to mind the work of Ivan Illich, who devoted a considerable amount of his intellectual labors to the task of exploring the sources of what we might think of as, from his perspective, our manufactured neediness. It is not, of course, that Illich denied that human beings have needs. It was that from his point of view many of the needs we think we have are, in fact, deliberately cultivated in us by a techno-economic institutional order that excels at nothing so much as the generation of dependent consumers. So, for example, we may very well have a need to learn, but why exactly has that need been transmuted into the need for schooling?

In the opening of Deschooling Society, Illich claims that the “hidden curriculum” of schooling is dependency on the institution of the school. “The pupil,” Illich writes, “is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” The student’s imagination, Illich continued, “is ‘schooled’ to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work.”

Illich then explains how he will “show 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.”

Interestingly, for our purposes, Illich goes on to write about how this process of degradation is “accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities; when health, education, personal mobility, welfare, or psychological healing are defined as the result of services or ‘treatments.’”

The line to tuck away, along with Weil’s observations, is the one about nonmaterial needs being transformed into demands for commodities. If Weil is right about the vital importance of what she calls moral needs or the needs of the soul, then what Illich identifies is, of course, a pernicious and perverse hijacking of these needs. Pernicious because of the transmutation of vital non-physical needs into the need for commodities. Perverse because the the nature of the commodification is such that these vital needs are never satisfied. Indeed, having been institutionalized along the lines Illich identifies, they must be forever perpetuated so as to justify the ongoing existence of the institution in question.

Consider for a moment a more concrete and contemporary example. Why does anyone need a Ring camera? Or, better, whose interests are best served by a Ring camera? The most obvious answer is Amazon. If there is a problem that Ring is supposed to solve it is the problem of packages being stolen from people’s front porches, a problem that arises when our consumption is increasingly funneled through Amazon. But, of course, Ring presents itself as more than just the surveillance arm of a multibillion dollar corporation deployed to your front door. It hijacks the human need for security or safety and transmutes it into a need for Ring. It is chiefly the needs of Amazon that are being met, particularly given the way that Ring allows Amazon to also profit from partnerships with police departments. And as Illich would have readily predicted, this dependence on a corporate product comes at the additional cost of alienating neighbors, eroding social trust, and replacing mutual interdependence with a state of perpetual suspicion.

By contrast, in Tools for Conviviality, Illich wrote “that society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines.” In other words, individuals and groups ought to be able to determine their needs rather than have their needs determined or manufactured for them. But, as Illich went on to argue, “the institutions of industrial society do just the opposite. As the power of machines increases, the role of persons more and more decreases to that of mere consumers.” Nowhere is this reduction of the person to the status of mere consumer more evident than in the ruthless efficiency of Amazon’s near total enclosure of our lives within a network of self-perpetuating and automated consumption, one within which we come to increasingly function as a mere node rather than the autonomous consumer we imagine ourselves to be.

But Illich saw in our dependence on institutions that dictate to us the nature of our neediness more than just a failure of personal autonomy and self-realization. The question of justice was also at stake.

“At present,” Illich observed [emphasis mine],

“people tend to relinquish the task of envisaging the future to a professional élite. They transfer power to politicians who promise to build up the machinery to deliver this future. They accept a growing range of power levels in society when inequality is needed to maintain high outputs. Political institutions themselves become draft mechanisms to press people into complicity with output goals. What is right comes to be subordinated to what is good for institutions. Justice is debased to mean the equal distribution of institutional wares.”

Illich is here suggesting the existence of a counterfeit form of justice, one which we might gloss as a matter of becoming equally dependent on institutions and their commodities. Perhaps it will seem like a stretch, but the contemporary example that leaps to my mind is the belief in some quarters that the problem with facial recognition technology is simply that it seems, in its present iteration, to be especially biased against people of color, as if the tool would be just and good as soon as it was calibrated so that people of color were equally legible to its gaze. In other words, equal access to fundamentally degrading institutions and their products is not justice.

Elsewhere in Tools for Conviviality, Illich wrote about the three distinct values: survival, justice, and self-defined work, which were, in his view, “fundamental to any convivial society however different one such society might be from another in practice, institutions, or rationale.”

As he went on to explain,

“The conditions for survival are necessary but not sufficient to ensure justice; people can survive in prison. The conditions for the just distribution of industrial outputs are necessary, but not sufficient to promote convivial production. People can be equally enslaved by their tools … A postindustrial society must and can be so constructed that no one person’s ability to express him- or herself in work will require as a condition the enforced labor or the enforced learning or the enforced consumption of another.”

There’s a three-tiered framework here that will have a Janus function at this juncture in the essay. Illich argues that what he calls a convivial society—which we can think of simply as a distinctly Illichian way of speaking about a good society—involves not only equal access to commodities, however broadly we conceive of them, but something more. This “something more,” as we see in the paragraph just quoted, Illich ties very close to work, work that is free, creative, and meaningful. In this regard, Illich recalls Simone Weil, who, though approaching the matter from her own deeply religious perspective, believed that “all the problems of technology and economy should be formulated functionally by conceiving of the best possible condition for the worker.”

It would be worth exploring how Weil and Illich each conceive of work as a condition of human flourishing (that work may already have been done, if so I’m presently unaware of it), but it enough for my purposes here to note that they both understand that a good society would furnish its citizens with more than just a steady stream of endless diversions.

The Good Society

But Illich’s three-tiered schema not only recalls Weil in its high regard for meaningful work, it also recalls another threefold schema offered by the philosopher Albert Borgmann in his 1984 work, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, a significant and still highly relevant book that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

In his discussion of technology and democracy, Borgmann also puts forth a three-tiered “vision of society”: the constitutional or formally just society, the fair or substantively just society, and the good society. In the formally just society, all citizens are assured of equal liberties by the constitution and the legal code. But, as Borgmann notes, “formal justice is compatible with inequality.” “I may have the right to do nearly everything,” he adds, “and yet the economic and cultural means to do next to nothing.” Thus the need for what Borgmann calls substantive justice that accounts for “economic arrangements and legislation” as well as “civil rights and liberties.”

Yet, as Borgmann puts it, a substantively just society can still yield a life that is “indolent, shallow, and distracted.” In other words, a substantively just society may still fail to be a good society, one which addresses the full range of human needs. Borgmann believes that a substantively just society “remains incomplete and is easily dispirited without a fairly explicit and definite vision of the good life.”

Further on, Borgmann puts the distinctions this way (emphasis his): “A constitutional society furnishes formal or vacuous equality of opportunity. A just society secures fair or substantive equality of opportunity. Whether we have a good society depends on the kind of opportunities that the society provides for its citizens.”

Perhaps another more contemporary example can help clarify Borgmann’s distinctions as I understand them. We can imagine a society, without a great deal of effort, in which the elderly routinely find themselves isolated, lonely, and lacking a sense of purpose—in a word, uprooted in Weil’s sense. This society has developed robots and digital devices to care for the elderly and to keep them company. In a formally just society, all elderly citizens have the right to procure these consumer goods. In a substantively just society, all elderly citizens can afford to procure these goods or else they are supplied by the state.

I trust, however, that you might agree with me in recognizing neither of these societies as good societies. Better, we might grant, that the elderly have a robot to keep them company or modern tools of communication to slake their loneliness given no other alternatives, but much better still that they be rooted, that be an integrated part of a multi-generational family or community in which they also supply, in their turn and as they are able, the needs of their children and grandchildren, retaining as a result their dignity, purpose, and joy. 

Borgmann goes on to argue that “liberal democracy is enacted as technology.” By which he means that contrary to its avowed neutrality toward the nature of the good life, liberal democracy “does not leave the question of the good life open but answers it along technological lines.” Furthermore, Borgmann claims

“the theory of liberal democracy both needs and fears modern technology. It needs technology because the latter promises to furnish the neutral opportunities necessary to establish a just society and to leave the question of the good life open. It fears technology because technology may in fact deliver more than it had promised, namely, a definite version of the good society and, more important yet, one which is ‘good’ in a dubious sense.”

In other words, Borgmann is arguing that the professed neutrality toward the good life that has traditionally ordered liberal democracies has, in fact, acted as a cover under which the advance of modern technology has smuggled in a distinct vision of the good life and one which may not be conducive either to democracy or to human flourishing.

As Borgmann saw it in the mid-80s, while they differed as to how the fruits of economic growth should be distributed, both major American political factions “understand such growth as an increase in productivity which yields more consumer goods.” Echoing arguments we’ve already encountered, Borgmann went on to argue that “improved productivity … entails a degradation of work, and greater consumption leads to more distraction. Thus in an advanced industrial country, a policy of economic growth promotes mindless labor and mindless leisure.”

I’ve assembled the work of these three writers because it seems to me that they are all circling around a similar set of concerns about human needs, work, technology, justice, and the good life. Their reflections make clear that these are interlocking realities, which must be considered together. They direct our attention to a more fundamental level of analysis, which we do well to take up. And they all saw the dangers of ordering society around technologically automated production and consumption and of uprooting human beings to enhance both.

I’ve argued before in this newsletter and elsewhere that one of the salient features of digital culture is the rapid collapse of the ideals of neutrality and disinterested objectivity that have been central to the legitimacy of modern liberal institutions. While this collapse will continue to be attended by varying degrees of turmoil and conflict, it may also provide us with an opportunity to examine more carefully some of the assumptions that have informed the way we think about the nature of a good life. And I would suggest that we do well to start, as Simone Weil did, with a consideration of the full range of human needs, clarified by Ivan Illich’s searching critique of the needs engendered in us by industrial (and now digital) institutions, and oriented toward a more robust vision of a good society as Albert Borgmann urged us to imagine.

News and Resources

  • Scott Remer (2018), “A Radical Cure: Hannah Arendt & Simone Weil on the Need for Roots” (page numbers are for The Origins of Totalitarianism):

    “Arendt argued that people who feel themselves to be rootless or homeless will seek a home at any price, with possibly horrific results. For this reason, the ‘competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual’ (p.317) in capitalist mass society can pave the way for authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Indeed, the atomized and individualized mass is a necessary precondition for totalitarianism (p.318). Languishing in a ‘situation of spiritual and social homelessness’ (p.352), shorn of sustaining social bonds and ties, individuals are forced to live in a world where they cannot exist meaningfully and fruitfully. They try to escape this agonizing limbo and, in the absence of powerful inclusive left-wing alternatives, they look to exclusivist reactionary movements for succor. In this way, tribalism and racism are the bitter fruit of territorial rootlessness. They are wrongheaded attempts to secure roots. But rather than securing roots for the rootless masses, they simply create ‘metaphysical rootlessness’. Totalitarian and proto-totalitarian movements represent what Arendt calls a ‘fictitious home’ for people to ‘escape from disintegration and disorientation.’”

  • For The New Atlantis, David Guaspari reviewed, The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown, Karen Olsson’s 2019 book about Andre and Simone:

    “The appeal of her thought can, I hope, be seen from a telegraphic précis of one strand pursued throughout her life: Any division between intellectual and physical labor is pernicious. Any technology, or ideology, or social organization that imposes this division creates ‘two categories of men — those who command and those who obey,’ she wrote in Oppression and Liberty (1955). The commanders, ‘intoxicated,’ to borrow from her famous essay on the Iliad, lose sight of their own vulnerabilities. The commanded — laborers — become means, not ends.”

    Bonus: Sylvie Weil remembers her father, André Weil, and her aunt Simone, whom she never met.

  • Zachary Loeb reviews Matt Tierney’s Dismantlings: Words Against Machines in the American Long Seventies:

    “That the Luddites have lingered so fiercely in the public imagination is a testament to the fact that the Luddites, and the actions for which they are remembered, are good to think with. Insofar as one can talk about Luddism it represents less a coherent body of thought created by the Luddites themselves, and more the attempt by later scholars, critics, artists, and activists to try to make sense of what is usable from the Luddite legacy.”

  • Ryan Calo and Daniell Citron on “The Automated Administrative State: A Crisis of Legitimacy.” From the abstract:

    “Scholarship to date has explored the pitfalls of automation with a particular frame, asking how we might ensure that automation honors existing legal commitments such as due process. Missing from the conversation are broader, structural critiques of the legitimacy of agencies that automate. Automation throws away the expertise and nimbleness that justify the administrative state, undermining the very case for the existence and authority of agencies.

    Yet the answer is not to deny agencies access to technology. This article points toward a positive vision of the administrative state that adopts tools only when they enhance, rather than undermine, the underpinnings of agency legitimacy.”

  • On the value of reading aloud, which, after all, was the most common way to read for longer than many of us realize. Not the best article that could’ve been written on the subject, nonetheless, it’s a point worth recalling.

  • The opening of Rob Horning’s latest newsletter:

    ”The phone seems to demand the feed as a form — the endless flow of content, both as something we make and consume. The feed capitalizes on the personalized screen interface, the networkedness of the device, its portability and its immediacy, and resolves it all into a coherent experience that encapsulates the pleasures the phone can afford. The feed defines the sort of subjectivity that's sustainable through the kinds of intermediation that phones allow for. Whether we are consuming or creating it, the feed offers a coherent structure for the self, with a built-in, always implied audience. The stream of personalized content corresponds with the selfhood we can construct by posting; together these come to structure the nature of our self-awareness. We can understand ourselves in terms of what we consume in a feed and what we can post to it.”

  • Need a reading list? In a recent essay recalling the life and work of Joseph Brodsky, who would’ve been 80 this year, Peter Filkins recalls how, as a student, he invited Brodsky to have a beer with him after an especially long seminar. Brodsky agreed and, upon sitting down, all Filkins could think to say was “What should I read?”:

    “Nodding his head in approval, he asked for pen and paper, and there in a little notebook I carried around he scribbled down a list: Edwin Arlington Robinson, Weldon Kees (underlined), Ovid, Horace, Virgil, Catullus, minor Alexandrian poets, Paul Celan, Peter Huchel, Georg Trakl (underlined), Antonio Machado, Umberto Saba, Eugenio Montale (underlined), Andrew Marvell, Ivor Gurney, Patrick Kavanagh, Douglas Dunne, Zbigniew Herbert (underlined), Vasco Popa, Vladimir Holan, Ingeborg Bachmann, “Gilgamesh,” Randall Jarrell, Vachel Lindsay, Theodore Roethke, Edgar Lee Masters, Howard Nemerov, Max Jacob, Thomas Trahern, and then a short list of essayists: Hannah Arendt, William Hazlitt, George Orwell, Elias Canetti (underlined and Crowds and Power added), E. M. Cioran (Temptation to Exist added), and finally the poet Les Murray added in my own hand after he suggested it. The sheet of paper, roughly the size of an iPhone but, as Brodsky would say, with far more and far greater information stored within it, remains tucked away inside my copy of A Part of Speech to this day.”

  • Another title for your list: Alan Jacobs’s recently published Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind. Jacobs’s writing has long been for me both a source of insight and wisdom as well as a model of intellectual virtue. I could say more, but instead I will offer you another commendation of Jacobs’s work from Robin Sloan:

    “There is a general lament about our (‘our’) inability to converse across political and moral differences—across conflicting cosmologies, even. But these conversations are totally possible. In fact, they’re not particularly difficult. All they require is unshakeable integrity and deep trust 

    I have that kind of trust in the writer Alan Jacobs. I’ve been reading him for years, so this isn’t a snapshot impression; it’s built from a hundred examples, some of them vanishingly subtle, but all totally consistent. Again and again, I have seen him reject easy tribalisms, political and religious and aesthetic; resist the inviting flow of the moment; decline to dunk on his opponents. Again and again, in venues as official as books and magazines and as personal as blog posts and newsletters, he has written and argued with generosity and creativity and care.”


— From the Chinese novelist Zhang Ailing, writing in 1945 from amidst “a city devastated by Japanese aggression.” This passage is taken from Carl Mitcham’s discussion of Chinese technology in “Teaching with and Thinking After Illich on Tools”:

In this era, the old things are being swept away and the new things are still being born. But until this historical era reaches its culmination, all certainty will remain an exception. People sense that everything about their everyday life is a little out of order, out of order to a terrifying degree. All of us must live within a certain historical era, but this era sinks away from us like a shadow, and we feel we have been abandoned. In order to confirm our own existence, we need to take hold of something real, of something fundamental, and to that end we seek the help of an ancient memory, a memory of humanity that has lived through every era, a memory clearer and closer to our hearts than anything we might see gazing far into the future. And this gives rise to a strange apprehension about the reality surrounding us. We begin to suspect that this is an absurd and antiquated world, dark and bright at the same time. Between memory and reality there are awkward discrepancies, producing a solemn but subtle agitation, an intense but as yet indefinable struggle.

The Conversation

As you may have noted, this summer I hosted a virtual reading group on the paid subscriber side, which took up three of Ivan Illich’s books. On a whim I reached out to the philosopher Carl Mitcham to see if he might be willing to record an interview with me about Illich, with whom he had been good friends. Carl graciously agreed. Little did I know that this would open the door to my becoming acquainted with others who had been part of Illich’s circle of friends and collaborators, all of whom have been equally gracious and supportive. As it turns out, I’ve realized that I fortuitously stumbled upon a project: an oral history of Illich and his friendships. My interview with Carl was followed by one with Gustavo Esteva, and a few more are now in development. I’ll continue to make these available on the paid side, but I will also be thinking about what final and also public form these might take.

Within the next 48 hours, the temperature will dip into the mid-50s here in north Florida. I’m not sure that I can sufficiently convey the pleasure that I take from these first cool days of the year. They are a delight, especially when they arrive this early in the year.

In the midst of everything, I hope you have similar small but not insignificant pleasures attending your days.