Ivan Illich: Tools for Conviviality Harper and Row 1973"It is impossible to overstate the importance of this book, the most profound, far reaching and significant analysis of our decaying industrial and technocratic society that has been written.... If man is to prevent the destruction of his environment, his society and his spirit, here is where he must start." - John Holt
The book is not specifically about bicycles, axes or scythes, though tools powered by human metabolic energy hold more "convivial potential" than their motorized counterparts--a fact to which Illich repeatedly makes reference.
The studies at the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Mexico, which he helped set up, concluded that "when overefficient tools are applied to facilitate man's relationship with the physical environment, they can destroy the balance between man and nature - and upset the relationship between what people need to do for themselves and what they need to obtain ready-made." And that at a certain level of this imbalance, "no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the need it creates among society members. "
His "Luddite-like " tendencies notwithstanding, Illich's analyses are very holistic. The "tools" he was most concerned with were procedures, institutions and systems which provide goods and services: do they foster self-realization and self-worth or are they instead manipulative?
As a humanist, he felt that "the principal source of injustice in our epoch is political approval for the existence of tools that by their very nature restrict to a very few the liberty to use them in an autonomous way. "
The following excerpts from "Tools for Conviviality " are not necessarily in the same order here as in the book; they are merely a selection of passages relevant to this discussion.I use the term 'tool' broadly enough to include not only simple hardware such as drills, pots, syringes, brooms, building elements, or motors, and not just large machines like cars or power stations; I also include among tools productive institutions such as factories that produce tangible commodities like corn flakes or electric current, and productive systems for intangible commodities such as those which produce 'education' 'health', 'knowledge', or 'decisions'. I use this term because it allows me to subsume into one category all rationally designed devices, be they artifacts or rules, codes or operators, and to distinguish all these planned and engineered instrumentalities from other things such as basic food or implements, which in a given culture are not deemed to be subject to rationalization. School curricula or marriage laws are no less purposely shaped social devices than road networks.
Hand tools are those which adapt man's metabolic energy to a specific task. They can be multipurpose, like some primitive hammers or good modern pocket knives, or again they can be highly specific in design such as spindles, looms, or pedal-driven sewing machines. They can also be complex such as a transportation system built to get the most in mobility out of human energy--for instance, a bicycle system composed of a series of man-powered vehicles, such as pushcarts and three-wheel rickshas, with a corresponding road system equipped with repair stations and perhaps even covered roadways.
Tools foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user. The use of such tools by one person does not restrain another from using them equally.
Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision. Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others. Most tools today cannot be used in a convivial fashion. Tools can be purposely limited when simple pliers and screwdrivers are insufficient to repair modern cars.
Convivial tools rule out certain levels of power, compulsion and programming, which are precisely those features that now tend to make all governments look more or less alike.
The present world is divided into those who do not have enough and those who have more than enough, those who are pushed off the road by cars and those who drive them. The have-nots are miserable and the rich anxious to get more.
The symptoms of accelerated crisis are widely recognized. Multiple attempts have been made to explain them. I believe that this crisis is rooted in a major twofold experiment which has failed, and I claim that the resolution of the crisis begins with a recognition of the failure. 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 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. The hypothesis was that machines can replace slaves. The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men. Neither a dictatorial proletariat nor a leisure mass can escape the dominion of constantly expanding industrial tools.
The crisis can be solved only if we learn to invert the present deep structure of tools; if we give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high, independent efficiency, thus simultaneously eliminating the need for either slaves or masters and enhancing each person's range of freedom. People need new tools to work with rather than tools that "work" for them. They need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well-programmed energy slaves.
I believe 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 fact, 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.
People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make 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.
I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, of 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.
The increasing demand for products has come to define society's process. I will suggest how this present trend can be reversed and how modern science and technology can be used to endow human activity with unprecedented effectiveness. This reversal would permit the evolution of a lifestyle and of a political system which give priority to the protection, the maximum use, and the enjoyment of the one resource that is almost equally distributed among all people: personal energy under personal control.
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.
A convivial society would be the result of social arrangements that guarantee for each member the most ample and free access to the tools of the community and limit this freedom only in favor of another member's equal freedom.
What is fundamental to a convivial society is not the total absence of manipulative institutions and addictive goods and services, but the balance between those tools which create the specific demands they are specialized to satisfy and those complementary, enabling tools which foster self-realization.
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. Exclusion of the malignant tool and control of the expedient tool are the two major priorities of politics today. Multiple limits to overefficiency must be expressed in language that is simple and politically effective. This urgent task is faced, however, with three formidable obstacles: the idolatry of science, the corruption of ordinary language, and loss of respect for the formal process by which social decisions are made.