Ivan Illich - Tools for Conviviality


During the next several years I intend to work on an epilogue to the industrial age. I want to trace the changes in language, myth, ritual, and law which took place in the current epoch of pack-aging and of schooling. I want to describe the fading monopoly of the industrial mode of production and the vanishing of the industrially generated professions this mode of production serves.

Above all I want to show that two-thirds of mankind still can avoid passing through the industrial age, by choosing right now a postindustrial balance in their mode of production which the hyperindustrial nations will be forced to adopt as an alternative to chaos. To prepare for this task I submit this essay for critical comment.

In its present form this book is the result of conversations at CIDOC in Cuernavaca during the summer of 1972. Participants in my seminar will recognize their ideas, and often their words. I ask my collaborators to accept my sincere thanks, especially for their written contributions.

This essay has become too long to appear as an article and too intricate to be read in several installments. It is a progress report. I respectfully thank Ruth Nanda Anshen for issuing this tract as a volume, in World Perspectives, published by Harper & Row.

For several years at CIDOC in Cuernavaca we have conducted critical research on the monopoly of the industrial mode of production and have tried to define conceptually alternative modes that would fit a postindustrial age. During tine late sixties this research centered on educational devices. By 1970 we had found that:

  1. Universal education through compulsory schooling is not possible.
  2. Alternative devices for the production and marketing of mass education are technically more feasible and ethically less tolerable than compulsory graded schools. Such new educational arrangements are now on the verge of replacing traditional school systems in rich and in poor countries. They are potentially more effective in the conditioning of job-holders and consumers in an industrial economy. They are therefore more attractive for the management of present societies, more seductive for the people, and insidiously destructive of fundamental values.
  3. A society committed to high levels of shared learning and critical personal intercourse must set pedagogical limits on industrial growth.

I have published the results of this research in a previous volume of World Perspectives, entitled Deschooling Society. I clarified some of the points left ill defined in that book by writing an article published in the Saturday Review of April 19, 1971.

Our analysis of schooling has led us to recognize the mass production of education as a paradigm for other industrial enterprises, each producing a service commodity, each organized as a public utility, and each defining its output as a basic necessity. At first our attention was drawn to the compulsory insurance of professional health care, and to systems of public transport, which tend to become compulsory once traffic rolls above a certain speed. We found that the industrialization of any service agency leads to destructive side effects analogous to the unwanted secondary results well known from the overproduction of goods. we had to face a set of limits to growth in the service sector Of any society as inescapable as the limits inherent in the industrial production of artifacts. we concluded that a set of limits to industrial growth is well formulated only if these limits apply both to goods and to services which are produced in an industrial mode. So we set out to clarify these limits.

I here submit the concept of a multidimensional balance of human life which can serve as a framework for evaluating man's relation to his tools. In each of several dimensions of this balance it is possible to identify a natural scale. When an enterprise grows beyond a certain point on this scale, it first frustrates the end for which it was originally designed, and then rapidly becomes a threat to society itself. These scales must be identified and the

parameters of human endeavors within which human life remains viable must be explored.

Society can be destroyed when further growth of mass production renders the milieu hostile, when it extinguishes the free use of the natural abilities of society's members, when it isolates people from each other and locks them into a man-made shell, when it undermines the texture of community by promoting extreme social polarization and splintering specialization, or when cancerous acceleration enforces social change at a rate that rules out legal, cultural, and political precedents as formal guidelines to present behavior. Corporate endeavors which thus threaten society cannot be tolerated. At this point it becomes irrelevant whether an enterprise is nominally owned by individuals, corporations, or the slate, because no form of management can make such fundamental destruction serve a social purpose.

Our present ideologies are useful to clarify the contradictions which appear in a society which relies on the capitalist control of industrial production; they do not, however, provide the necessary framework for analyzing the crisis in the industrial mode of

production itself. I hope that one day a general theory of industrialization will be stated with precision, that it will be formulated in terms compelling enough to withstand the test of criticism. Its concepts ought to provide a common language for people in opposing parties who need to engage in the assessment of social programs or technologies, and who want to restrain the power of man's tools when they tend to overwhelm man and his goals. Such a theory should help people invert the present structure of major institutions. I hope that this essay will enhance the formulation of such a theory.

It is now difficult to imagine a modern society in which industrial growth is balanced and kept in check by several complementary, distinct, and equally scientific modes of production. Our vision of the possible and the feasible is so restricted by industrial expectations that any alternative to more mass production sounds like a return to past oppression or like a Utopian design for noble savages. In fact, however, the vision of new possibilities requires only the recognition that scientific discoveries can be useful in at least two opposite ways. The first leads to specia- lization of functions, institutionalization of values and centralization of power and turns people into the accessories of bureaucracies or machines. The second enlarges the range of each person's competence, control, and initiative, limited only by other individuals' claims to an equal range of power and freedom.

To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. 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. 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. The French cognate has been given technical meaning (for the kitchen) by Brillat-Savarin in his Physiology of Taste: Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. This specialized use of the term in French might explain why it has already proven effective in the unmistakably different and equally specialized context in which it will appear in this essay. I am aware that in English "convivial" now seeks the company of tipsy jollyness, which is distinct from that indicated by the OED and opposite to the austere meaning of modern "eutrapelia," which I intend. By applying the term "convivial" to tools rather than to people, I hope to forestall confusion.

"Austerity," which says something about people, has also been degraded and has acquired a bitter taste, while for Aristotle or Aquinas it marked the foundation of friendship. In the Summa Theologica, II, II, in the 186th question, article 5, Thomas deals with disciplined and creative playfulness. In his third response he defines "austerity" as a virtue which does not exclude all enjoyments, but only those which are distracting from or destructive of personal relatedness. For Thomas "austerity" is a complementary part of a more embracing virtue, which he calls friendship or joyfulness. It is the fruit of an apprehension that things or tools could destroy rather than enhance eutrapelia (or graceful playfulness) in personal relations.*

* Hugo v. Rahner, Man at Play, New York, 1972.