If our tools entangle people and society into unhealthy structures of control, how can we "escape the dominion of constantly expanding industrial tools" ? In Convivial Reconstruction, Ivan Illich argues that we must examine and invert the deep structure of our current tools and offer new kinds of tools that decentralize control and expand people's autonomy rather than centralize and stratify power.
Convivial Reconstruction in Context
Convivial Reconstruction, the second chapter in Illich's book, follows on from an analysis of the medical profession in chapter one. In the first chapter, Illich talks about the turning point at which medically-trained doctors become the norm in a society. Illich argues that technical professions like medicine tend towards greater monopoly and control, through measurements, techniques, training, and eventually, planning. Along with the professionalisation of health comes a separation from relationships: "as the value of services rose, it became almost impossible for people to care." Illich then identifies a second turning point, "the unwanted hygienic by-products of medicine began to affect entire populations rather than just individual men," calling this a system of "bureaucratic medicine." Illich argues that this population-level influence is associated with "scientific discoveries [that] were easily measured and verified," but also prompting further growth even as "the marginal utility of further professionalization declined." For Illich, medicine offers an example of what happened to "education, the mails, social work, transportation, and even civil engineering" as they experienced "bureaucratic escalation" where the only cure is "more management...more costly interdisciplinary research... the attempt to overwhelm present problems by the introduction of more science is the ultimate attempt to solve a crisis by escalation."
What does Illich mean by "convivial?" In the introduction to the book, Illich argues that convivial represents a "modern society of responsibly limited tools" (introduction). He references his prior work in Deschooling Society, where he argued that "A society committed to high levels of shared learning and critical personal intercourse must set pedagogical limits on industrial growth." Writing in the introduction to Tools for Conviviality, Illich argues:
We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Once these limits are recognized, 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."
What does Illich mean by "tool"? In the second chapter he uses the term broadly, including:
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... School curricula or marriage laws are no less purposely shaped social devices than road networks.
Illich points out that tools, defined here, are "intrinsic to social relationships," defining how someone sees themselves, how others see them, and the power relations between people. To illustrate this, Illich compares hand tools to bicycles or power tools or the autopilot on a jet plane, which directly rely on broader social structures. He also draws attention to the dentist's drill, which is only operable with a license and taught in schools. He notes situations where corporations (like auto manufacturers) introduce monopolies on certain acts by defining what tools can be used to repair them. He critiques the television for only permitting "very few programmers and speakers."
In chapter two, Illich further expands his idea of conviviality. conviviality represents "autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and.... their environment" and not "the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others." He also calls it "individual freedom realized in personal interdependence." Illich argues that science and technology can be used to foster this condition and "endow human activity with unprecedented effectiveness." A convivial society would offer "each member the most ample and free access to the tools of the community," he claims.
To achieve a convivial society, Illich argues that:
- We need new methods to recognize the structures and purposes of current tools
- Science and technology should be governed by a majority action political process rather than experts, claims Illich.
- The scope of tools needs to be limited by the conditions for survival, the 'conditions for the just distribution, and the conditions for convivial work that are coordinated to preserve individiaul autonomy.
- A convivial society should be an evolving, participatory process, "constantly adjusted under the pressure of conflicting insights and interests"
- A pluralism of tools and "convivial commonweals" should be encouraged to "encourage a diversity of life styles."
What is an example of a convivial tool? Illich points to the telephone system, which allows anyone to dial anyone, coordinated by computers. Computers also offer no restrictions on people's activity: "The telephone lets anybody say what he wants to the person of his choice:" business, love, or a quarrel. Illich notes that "It is impossible for bureaucrats to define what people say to each other on the phone," though he does cite influence of the state on privacy of telephone communications. Illich argues that "the distinction between convivial and manipulatory tools is independent of the level of technology".
Decentralization is an important quality of convivial tools for Illich. Contrasting his vision with that of cybernetics, perhaps in reference to Stafford Beer's work on [management cybernetics], Illich argues that "Natural and social science can be used for the creation of tools, utilities, and rules available to everyone, permitting individuals and transient associations to constantly recreate their mutual relationships and their environment with unenvisaged freedom and self-expression." Illich works this out in an example featuring cars and road networks. He complains about highways, which require specialized vehicles and put people in buses, rather than support self-owned bicycles and general purpose trucks. Focus on speed "is one of the means by which an efficiency-oriented society is stratified," Illich argues. In Thailand, he argues, highways replaced family-owned boats with public buses and cars for the rich, only increasing the centralization (buses) and stratification (cars) of transportation and reducing autonomy. A convivial society, in contrast, supports greater autonomy through decentralization.
Theoretical and practical relevance:
Convivial Reconstruction offers important backstory to the development of the personal computer, most notably through the influence of Illich on [Lee Felenstein], developer of the [Community Memory] system and the first Personal Computer.