Ivan Illich (1973)

Traditionally, in the English language, ‘conviviality’ means the enjoyment of good company with festivity and feasting. Ivan Illich chose the word to describe a human quality which he sees as fundamental to the worthwhileness of any society. He expressed it in these words:

I choose the term 'conviviality' ... to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment. (p11)

Illich's writings are not always easy to follow. He was a South American and in Spanish the verb convivir means to live peacefully with others on a daily basis. He added to this the ideas of autonomy, creativity and environment, perhaps meaning that people should be free to do their own thing within the limits set by society and the environment. Illich argued that as societies become more industrialised, so conviviality is reduced.

‘But’, you may say, ‘surely the advantage of living in an industrial society is that advanced technology gives people more opportunity for doing their own thing? Household equipment reduces domestic chores, television entertains the mind, leisure centres exercise the body, and the motor car and jumbo jet enable people to explore their environment.’ Illich's answer to that would be harsh, for while he might agree that there are more opportunities for doing things, he would point out that people are not doing their own thing, but are being manipulated into doing things chosen for them by others. This is expressed in his full description of conviviality:

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. (p11)

As an illustration of what Illich meant by conviviality, compare telephone and television. Illich saw the telephone as a convivial tool, but not television. (By ‘tool’ he means any artefact or institution which serves some purpose. So shovels and schools, tractors and telephones, hospitals and holiday camps are all tools). The telephone is convivial because people using it can make autonomous decisions - they can telephone whoever they like and whenever they like - and in doing so they can be creative in making friendships and in developing ideas through talking. On the other hand, television is not convivial because the choice of what is to be seen is made not by the individual (apart from the minor decision of which of several programmes to watch) but by the television corporations, and there is no opportunity for creative activity by viewers.

Illich recognised two stages in the development of tools. In the first stage, specific problems are identified and new knowledge is sought in order to solve these problems. This stage is usually beneficial to all for whom the problem is a concern. In the second stage progress itself becomes the goal and is used as a rationale for the exploitation of the mass of the people by elite sections of society.

Consider some examples of the two stages. In the first stage of development of industries serving the home market, domestic tools were invented and manufactured in response to people's needs for beds, furniture, cooking ware and clothing. They were made to last for as long as possible and were bought when needed and when people had saved enough to afford them. In the second stage of development, managers of these industries limited the manufacture of domestic tools to designs that they decided were ‘fashionable’, created demands for these tools by mass advertising, provided the finance through hire-purchase, and ensured that the next generation of fashion would be needed by incorporating built-in obsolescence. Thus people lost the autonomy that they had had earlier and became manipulated by an elite of industrialists and designers.

In the building trade, the first stage in the industrial development of tools was the invention of new building and roofing materials, of plumbing, heating and lighting devices and of new paints and finishes. The second stage entailed the arise of an elite of housing contractors and local authority building inspectors who developed strict building codes such that the man who would choose to build his own house in his spare time could hardly succeed. This may seem different from the previous example, but in effect has the same characteristic of people losing autonomy in a fundamental aspect of living - in this case the construction of shelter.

In schools the first stage was the attempt to give the whole population access to books and learning through achieving universal literacy by the elementary schools; the second stage entailed an academic elite deciding what is worthwhile for children to learn and creating a competitive ladder towards life-long privilege for a few while the majority of pupils suffer the stigma of failing to reach higher levels.

In medicine the first stage was the discovery of cures for the majority of diseases. (Illich maintained that most people could diagnose and successfully treat most of the curable ailments themselves unaided.) The second stage entailed the medical elite depriving people of responsibility for their own healing and dying, and in the process introducing iatrogenic diseases which are the unwanted side effects of drug treatments.

In common with other commentators, Illich was concerned about the accelerating crises of industrial societies, but, unlike others, his explanation lay in the ways in which man has used machines (or tools).

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 was that machines can replace slaves. The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men. (p10)

Illich identified several ways in which tools can enslave men. It is necessary to remember that he used the word ‘tool’ in a very broad sense which includes any man-made artefact or institution which serves some societal purpose. In each case he considered that a delicate balance or equilibrium is being disrupted by the tools which man is developing.

[1] People are enslaved by tools when doctors, social workers, teachers, house builders, food processors and undertakers deprive them of the opportunity of exercising their native capabilities. People have a capacity for healing themselves, for supporting each other, for learning what they want to know, for building their own houses, growing and cooking their own food and for burying their own dead. There should be a balance between what people do for themselves and what is done for them by specialists. The present trend of specialists taking over is corrosive for human beings. Illich argued that we are being over-programmed and the world is being transformed into a treatment ward in which people are constantly taught, socialised, normalised, tested and reformed.

[2] People are also enslaved by tools when these result in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, thus disturbing the erstwhile balance between rich and poor. This arises because of the obsession with progress which causes tools to become more complicated, specialised and expensive. The specialist elites who operate these tools are highly trained and demand high pay in consequence; they become smaller in number as 'efficiency' increases, and this is paralleled by their increase in power over their fellows. The poor vote for rapid industrialisation in order to have access to mass produced goods which can give them the same comforts as are owned by the rich, but in the process of rapid industrialisation the rich become super affluent because of their power in society. The obsession with progress also results in obsolescence as an industrial phenomenon. The belief is fostered that anything new will be better and so periodic innovation in tools becomes an essential feature of industrial society. The rich buy the new models and the poor see themselves impoverished because of their ownership of older models.

[3] Enslavement will be followed by annihilation if the delicate ecological balance between the activities of man and the processes of nature is disturbed too far. This balance is threatened by over-efficient technology, which results in excessive affluence, over-population, and consequent large-scale pollution of the environment.

Illich concluded that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves and serve free people; beyond these limits the use of machines leads to a new kind of serfdom in which people are slaves of the machines. It follows that the idea of imposing limits to machines (or tools) is central to Illich's concept of a convivial society, which he describes as a ‘society of responsibly limited tools.’ He focuses on the one resource which everybody possesses and which is more or less equally distribute among all people: personal energy. His concern is that for everybody this should be under personal control. The development of a convivial society entails 'the evolution of a life style and of a political system which ensures that the personal energies of its members are under their individual personal control. This means that a convivial society must guarantee for each of its members ample and free access to the tools of the community, arid should limit this freedom only in favour of another member's equal freedom of access.

Illich's concept of a tool embraces every kind of thing which has been rationally designed by men to serve some purpose. Thus he listed as examples, in a marvellous paragraph which demonstrates clearly the scope of his thinking: pots, brooms, cars, power stations, corn flake factories, school curricula, marriage laws and road networks.

Illich was concerned with people's freedom to be creative, which he saw as a fundamental source of joy, and he insisted that creative activity requires the use of tools which can be controlled by the individual using them. He described a convivial society in these terms:

A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others ... To the degree that an individual masters his tools, he can invest the world with his meaning: to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tools determines his self-image. 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 ... 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. (p20-22)