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Why the Landline Telephone Was the Perfect Tool (Suzanne Fischer)

Rogue Philosopher Ivan Illich's ideas and what they mean for the Internet age.



Ivan Illich would have approved of the Internet.

Born in Vienna between the two wars, the public intellectual and radical priest Ivan Illich had by his mid-30s set out to rethink the world. In 1961, having arrived in Mexico by way of New York City and Puerto Rico, he started the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) learning center in Cuernavaca, an unlikely cross between a language school for missionaries, a free school, and a radical think tank, where he gathered thinkers and resources to conduct research on creating a world that empowered the oppressed and fostered justice.

Illich's achievement was a reframing of human relationships to systems and society, in everyday, accessible language. He advocated for the reintegration of community decisionmaking and personal autonomy into all the systems that had become oppressive: school, work, law, religion, technology, medicine, economics. His ideas were influential for 1970s technologists and the appropriate technology movement -- can they be useful today?

In 1971, Illich published what is still his most famous book, Deschooling Society. He argued that the commodification and specialization of learning had created a harmful education system that had become an end in itself. In other words, "the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school." For Illich, language often pointed to how toxic ideas had poisoned the ways we relate to each other. "I want to learn," he said, had been transmuted by industrial capitalism into "I want to get an education," transforming a basic human need for learning into something transactional and coercive. He proposed a restructuring of schooling, replacing the manipulative system of qualifications with self-determined, community-supported, hands-on learning. One of his suggestions was for "learning webs," where a computer could help match up learners and those who had knowledge to share. This skillshare model was popular in many radical communities.

With Tools for Conviviality (1973), Illich extended his analysis of education to a broader critique of the technologies of Western capitalism. The major inflection point in the history of technology, he asserts, is when, in the life of each tool or system, the means overtake the ends. "Tools can rule men sooner than they expect; the plow makes man the lord of the garden but also the refugee from the dust bowl." Often this effect is accompanied by the rise in power of a managerial class of experts; Illich saw technocracy as a step toward fascism. Tools for Conviviality points out the ways in which a helpful tool can evolve into a destructive one, and offers suggestions for how communities can escape the trap.

So what makes a tool "convivial?" For Illich, "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." That is, convivial technologies are accessible, flexible, and noncoercive. Many tools are neutral, but some promote conviviality and some choke it off. Hand tools, for Illich, are neutral. Illich offers the telephone as an example of a tool that is "structurally convivial" (remember, this is in the days of the ubiquitous public pay phone): anyone who can afford a coin can use it to say whatever they want. "The telephone lets anybody say what he wants to the person of his choice; he can conduct business, express love, or pick a quarrel. It is impossible for bureaucrats to define what people say to each other on the phone, even though they can interfere with -- or protect -- the privacy of their exchange."

A "manipulatory" tool, on the other hand, blocks off other choices. The automobile and the highway system it spawned are, for Illich, prime examples of this process. Licensure systems that devalue people who have not received them, such as compulsory schooling, are another example. But these kinds of tools, that is, large-scale industrial production, would not be prohibited in a convivial society. "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." 

To foster convivial tools, Illich proposes a program of research with "two major tasks: to provide guidelines for detecting the incipient stages of murderous logic in a tool; and to devise tools and tool systems that optimize the balance of life, thereby maximizing liberty for all." He also suggests that pioneers of a convivial society work through the legal and political systems and reclaim them for justice. Change is possible, Illich argues. There are decision points. We cannot abdicate our right to self-determination, and to decide how far is far enough. "The crisis I have described," says Illich, "confronts people with a choice between convivial tools and being crushed by machines."

Illich's ideas on technology, like his ideas on schooling, were influential among those who spent the 1970s thinking that we might be on the cusp of another world. Some of those utopians included early computer innovators, who saw the culture of sharing, self-determination, and DIY that they lived as something that should be baked into tools.

Computing pioneer Lee Felsenstein has spoken about the direct influence Tools for Conviviality on his work. For him, Illich's description of radio as a convivial tool in Central America was a model for computer development: "The technology itself was sufficiently inviting and accessible to them that it catalyzed their inherent tendencies to learn. In other words, if you tried to mess around with it, it didn't just burn out right away. The tube might overheat, but it would survive and give you some warning that you had done something wrong. The possible set of interactions, between the person who was trying to discover the secrets of the technology and the technology itself, was quite different from the standard industrial interactive model, which could be summed up as 'If you do the wrong thing, this will break, and God help you.' ... And this showed me the direction to go in. You could do the same thing with computers as far as I was concerned." Felsenstein described the first meeting of the legendary Homebrew Computer Club, where 30 or so people tried to understand the Altair together, as "the moment at which the personal computer became a convivial technology."

In 1978, Valentina Borremans of CIDOC prepared a Reference Guide to Convivial Tools. This guide to resources listed many of the new ideas in 1970s appropriate technology -- food self-sufficiency, earth-friendly home construction, new energy sources. But our contemporary convivial tools are mostly in the realm of communications. At their best, personal computers, the web, mobile technology, the open source movement, and the maker movement are contemporary convivial tools. What other convivial technologies do we use today? What tools do we need to make more convivial? Ivan Illich would exhort us to think carefully about the tools we use and what kind of world they are making.

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