Tools for Conviviality

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Illich

Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. 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.” After many doubts, and against the advice of friends whom I respect, I have chosen “convivial” as a technical term to designate a modern society of responsibly limited tools. In part this choice was conditioned by the desire to continue a discourse which had started with its Spanish cognate.


Access to specialists, prestige hospitals, and life-machines goes preferentially to those people who live in large cities, where the cost of basic disease prevention, as of water treatment and pollution control, is already exceptionally high. The higher the per capita cost of prevention, the higher, paradoxically, became the per capita cost of treatment. The prior consumption of costly prevention and treatment establishes a claim for even more extraordinary care. Like the modern school system, hospital-based health care fits the principle that those who have will receive even more and those who have not will be taken for the little that they have. In schooling this means that high consumers of education will get postdoctoral grants, while dropouts learn that they have failed.

Community leaders object to the lack of community control over the delivery systems of professional health maintenance or of sick care, believing that laymen on hospital boards can harness professional medics. Black spokesmen object to the concentration of research grants on the types of disease which tend to strike the white, elderly, overfed foundation official who approves them. They ask for research on sickle-cell anemia, which strikes only the black. The general voter hopes that the end of the war in Vietnam will make more funds available for an increase of medical production. This general concern with symptoms, however, distracts attention from the malignant expansion of institutional health care which is at the root of the rising costs and demands and the decline in well-being.

Germ-free water reduced infant mortality related to diarrhea, aspirin reduced the pain of rheumatism, and malaria could be controlled by quinine. Some traditional cures were recognized as quackery, but, more importantly, the use of some simple habits and tools spread widely. People began to understand the relationship between health and a balanced diet, fresh air, calisthenics, pure water and soap. New devices ranging from toothbrushes to Band-Aids and condoms became widely available. The positive contribution of modern medicine to individual health during the early part of the twentieth century can hardly be questioned.

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conviviality

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. Prisoners in rich countries often have access to more things and services than members of their families, but they have no say in how things are to be made and cannot decide what to do with them. Their punishment consists in being deprived of what I shall call “conviviality.” They are degraded to the status of mere consumers. I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity.

I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an 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.

As an alternative to technocratic disaster, I propose the vision of a convivial society. 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.

People will rediscover the value of joyful sobriety and liberating austerity only if they relearn to depend on each other rather than on energy slaves. The price for a convivial society will be paid only as the result of a political process which reflects and promotes the society-wide inversion of present industrial consciousness. This political process will find its concrete expression not in some taboo, but in a series of temporary agreements on one or the other concrete limitation of means, constantly adjusted under the pressure of conflicting insights and interests.

The have-nots are miserable and the rich anxious to get more. A society whose members know what is enough might be poor, but its members would be equally free. Men with industrially distorted minds cannot grasp the rich texture of personal accomplishments within the range of modern though limited tools. There is no room in their imaginations for the qualitative change that the acceptance of a stable-state industry would mean; a society in which members are free from most of the multiple restraints of schedules and therapies now imposed for the sake of growing tools. Much less do most of our contemporaries experience the sober joy of life in this voluntary though relative poverty which lies within our grasp.

Invention of education

The invention of education is an example of what I mean. We often forget that education acquired its present sense only recently. It was unknown before the Reformation, except as that part of early upbringing which is common to piglets, ducks, and men. It was clearly distinguished from the instruction needed by the young, and from the study in which some engaged later on in life and for which a teacher was needed. Voltaire still called it a presumptuous neologism, used only by pretentious schoolmasters.

The endeavor to put all men through successive stages of enlightenment is rooted deeply in alchemy, the Great Art of the waning Middle Ages. John Amos Comenius, a Moravian bishop of the seventeenth century, a self-styled pansophist and pedagogue, is rightly considered one of the founders of the modern school. He was among the first to propose seven or twelve grades of compulsory learning. In his Magna Didactica he described schools as devices to “teach everybody everything” and outlined a blueprint for the assembly-line production of knowledge, which according to his method would make education cheaper and better and make growth into full humanity possible for all. But Comenius was not only an early theoretician of mass production, he was an alchemist who adapted the technical language of his craft to describe the art of rearing children. The alchemist sought to refine base elements by graduating their spirits through twelve stages of successive enlightenment, so that for their own and all the world’s benefit they might be transformed into gold. Of course, alchemists failed no matter how often they tried, but each time their “science” yielded new reasons for their failure, and they tried again.

Schools tried to extend a radical monopoly on learning by redefining it as education. As long as people accepted the teacher’s definition of reality, those who learned outside school were officially stamped “uneducated.” Modern medicine deprives the ailing of care not prescribed by doctors. Radical monopoly exists where a major tool rules out natural competence. Radical monopoly imposes compulsory consumption and thereby restricts personal autonomy.

The balance of learning is determined by the ratio of two kinds of knowledge in a society. The first is a result of the creative action of people on their environment, and the second represents the result of man’s “trivialization” by his manufactured milieu. Their first kind of knowledge is derived from the primary involvement of people with each other and from their use of convivial tools; the second accrues to them as a result of purposeful and programmed training to which they are subjected. Speaking the mother tongue is learned in the first way, while some pupils learn mathematics in the second. No sane person would say that speaking or walking or nursing a child is primarily the result of education, while competence in mathematics, ballet dancing, or painting usually is.


Crucial to how much anyone can learn on his own is the structure of his tools: the less they are convivial, the more they foster teaching. In limited and well-integrated tribes, knowledge is shared quite equally among most members. All people know most of what everybody knows. On a higher level of civilization, new tools are introduced; more people know more things, but not all know how to execute them equally well. Mastery of skill does not yet imply a monopoly of understanding. One can understand fully what a goldsmith does without being one oneself. Men do not have to be cooks to know how to prepare food. This combination of widely shared information and competence for using it is characteristic of a society in which convivial tools prevail.


People learn that they acquire more value in the market if they spend more hours in class. They learn to value progressive consumption of curricula. They learn that whatever a major institution produces has value, even invisible things such as education or health. They learn to value grade advancement, passive submission, and even the standard misbehavior that teachers like to interpret as a sign of creativity. They learn disciplined competition for the favor of the bureaucrat who presides over their daily sessions, who is called their teacher as long as they are in class and their boss when they go to work. They learn to define themselves as holders of knowledge stock in the specialty in which they have made investments of their time. They learn to accept their place in society precisely in the class and career corresponding to the level at which they leave school and to the field of their academic specialization. Industrial jobs are arranged so that the better-schooled fit into the scarcer slots.

A convivial society

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. 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.


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. They do not require previous certification of the user. Their existence does not impose any obligation to use them. They allow the user to express his meaning in action.

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. The first set of tools produces according to abstract plans for men in general; the other set enhances the ability of people to pursue their own goals in their unique way.

A convivial society does not exclude all schools. It does exclude a school system which has been perverted into a compulsory tool, denying privileges to the dropout. A convivial society does not exclude some high-speed intercity transport, as long as its layout does not in fact impose equally high speeds on all other routes. Not even television must be ruled out–although it permits very few programmers and speakers to define what their viewers may see–as long as the over-all structure of society does not favor the degradation of everyone into a compulsory voyeur. The criteria of conviviality are to be considered as guidelines to the continuous process by which a society’s members defend their liberty, and not as a set of prescriptions which can be mechanically applied.

Stalinism

The Stalinist interpretation of socialism has made it possible for socialists and capitalists alike to agree on how to measure the level of development a society has achieved. Societies in which most people depend for most of their goods and services on the personal whim, kindness, or skill of another are called “underdeveloped,” while those in which living has been transformed into a process of ordering from an all-encompassing store catalogue are called “advanced.” Stalinism makes it possible to interpret as revolutionary whatever increases the amount of schooling, expands the road systems, or increases the productivity of extraction and manufacture.


New technology

New technology is now used to amplify supply funnels for commodities. Public utilities are turned from facilities for persons into arenas for the owners of expensive tools. The use of science and technology constantly supports the industrial mode of production, and thereby crowds off the scene all tool shops for independent enterprise. But this is not the necessary result of new scientific discoveries or of their useful application. It is rather the result of a total prejudice in favor of the future expansion of an industrial mode of production. Research teams are organized to remedy minor inefficiencies that hold up the further growth of a specific production process.

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