It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Systems for Conviviality? Pt. 1

Over at a blog called Design Dialogues, a post entitled Convivial Design for the American Breakdown argues that the current worldwide economic collapse has opened the door to greater "conviviality" in industrial design. Conviviality, of course, is the term Ivan Illich coined in his book Tools for Conviviality to describe a modern but de-professionalized, non-industrial organization of society.

Today's economic crisis, the piece asserts, looks like the one that nearly 40 years ago Illich saw as both imminent and inevitable. As economic "growth grinds to a halt," Illich is quoted, "people will lose confidence not only in the major institutions but also in the miracle prescriptions of the would-be crisis managers. The ability of present institutions to define values such as education, health, welfare, transportation, or news will suddenly be extinguished because it will be recognized as an illusion."

And so, with the U.S. economy clearly in a shambles right now, writes Peter Jones of Toronto, "there is something different, something truly timely in Illich’s Convivial Tools notion. ... Let's return ... to a process of human-scale cultural design. This means for us to 'invert the present deep structure of tools' in order to 'give people tools that guarantee their right to work with independent efficiency.'

Alas, we see little chance of the current situation, as dire as it is, causing any such inversion or the "true flipping of consciousness" that Illich had looked forward to. "The crisis I have described as imminent is not a crisis within industrial society," he wrote in Tools, "but a crisis of the industrial mode of production itself." Sure, lots of people are starting their own businesses, some of them craft-oriented, and more people are riding bicycles, but there's no widespread disillusionment with or rejection of industrialism. Newly-minted "consultants" still make their living helping industrial corporations, there's barely any protest over the U.S. occupation of Iraq (after all, millions of non-convivial cars need fueling every day), and the debate over "universal health care" concerns only how to divvy up access to industrialized, anonymously delivered medical services, not how to dismantle that system.

Now, we're quite sympathetic to blogger Jones' hope for more conviviality, and pleased to see him bringing that still-important book to people's attention. (And like Jones, we've held on to our stack of Whole Earth Review, aka Co-Evolution Quarterly, magazines all these years.) But Jones is, we have to point out, one of any number of people we've run into who refer to Illich's notion of conviviality as especially inspiring in their work as designers of various products, urban landscapes and, especially, information systems. For the most part, these believers in conviviality are sincere, but they miss the point of Illich's argument. And more important, they are quite unaware of the radical directions that Illich took in his thinking about tools and technology after Tools appeared.

To cut to the chase: By the late 1980s, Illich concluded that after lasting some 800 years, the epoch of "tools" and instrumentality was suddenly drawing to an end. Increasingly and with unexpected rapidity, the world was coming to be perceived and conceptualized primarily in cybernetic terms - as a hierarchy of self-regulating systems, that is. Suddenly, information, feedback loops, inputs, requirements, probabilities, risk factors, and needs were the keywords of the day. And in contrast to working with traditional tools, people don't use systems. If anything, systems use people. Illich understood that once people themselves are conceived of as mere systems, struggling for survival in the larger, global "ecosystem," then people no longer exist. And without people, or humans, in the traditional sense, there can be no "convivial" tools. And there certainly are no convivial systems.

Illich originally defined the term "tool" fairly broadly, including everything from hammers and radios to wheelbarrows and cars to hospitals and schools. The problem was that that in their modern form, many of these tools had become either overly professionalized, thus making them scarce and unavailable to the majority of people, or so over-powered as unavoidably to infringe on the commons and on the freedom and autonomy of others. Most medicines, for instance, were administrable only by highly-trained doctors. Some were quite dangerous, but mostly this restriction stemmed from doctors having erected a set of self-serving laws and regulations that kept those substances - and similarly, most medical procedures - out of the hands of non-doctors. The automobile, meanwhile, tended to exacerbate inequality, rearrange the landscape, pollute the air and ground, and deny people everyday the use of streets and their legs. Convivial alternatives would be teaching paramedics, or perhaps even everyone, how to use certain medicines and procedures, and the bicycle as the main form of transportation. Schools could be convivial tools, too, noted Illich, perhaps their most stinging critic, as long as attendance was not made not compulsory.

Like virtually all thinkers of the time, Illich conceived of tools as being quite distinct from the person wishing to use them. Traditionally, a person can pick up their choice of tool, use it in some way, and then put it down. Illich coined the neologism "distality" to describe this fundamental separation of user and tool.

Systems, in contrast, do not exhibit any such distality. One cannot pick up or put down a system, whether it's a computer system or the medical system. Instead, the system incorporates, or inscribes, each person, turning her into a mere element of the larger entity. Gregory Bateson, a biologist and one of the founding fathers of cybernetics and systems theory, saw a simple but complete system in a blind man walking with his cane down a sidewalk, the three elements connected to each other materially and by informational feedback loops. The cane tapping the pavement creates sounds which the man's ears and brain analyze to determine his position and identify possible obstacles. His mind uses the sounds and echoes to control the muscles that move his feet as well as those in his arm and hand that make the cane tap the sidewalk. Likewise, Bateson said, a lumberjack swinging an ax at a tree trunk can be treated as a system.

It was in his continuing examination of the "medical system" that Illich became aware of how the systems view was starting to eclipse that centered on tools. Here's how his close collaborator Barbara Duden describes it:

When Ivan wrote [Medical] Nemesis in 1975, he had not yet understood [...] that importing terms plucked from information sciences and cybernetics to other disciplinary fields actually undermined his goals. The book, like some of his other early works, was full of categories taken from information technology and its systemic reference system. It was only in the late 1980s that he stopped short and began to feel uneasy about what he had written, thanks to the Greek mathematician Costas Hatzkiriaku. He convinced Ivan that concepts bound up with the computer did not work as metaphors, for their substance and form are indivisible. Using computer terms as such inevitably ends up treating the human being as a programmable component in a system, even if this was not an author’s intention. “When process becomes substance” - this would be the most fitting definition - then concepts tied to the language of programming would inform everything described in this way cybernetically. Our uniqueness as humans would essentially be “deleted.”

The two sides of this watershed can be seen in Illich's discussion of the term "needs." In Tools, he was fairly comfortable in speaking about needs. What he didn't like was that increasingly needs were defined by experts and professionals and this condemned most people to passively consuming industrially-produced goods and services that were, by definition, scarce. Yet, as a term, "needs" still retained a certain humanity, a glimmer of individuality and desire:

Individuals need tools to move and to dwell. They need remedies for their diseases and means to communicate with one another. People cannot make all these things for themselves. They depend on being supplied with objects and services which vary from culture to culture. Some people depend on the supply of food and others on the supply of ball bearings.

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.

By the early 1990s, Illich could look back on needs. His chapter in The Development Dictionary (1992, edited by Wolfgang Sachs), was titled Needs but wound up its argument with language like this (p.98):

In the 1970s, experts presented themselves as servants who helped the poor become conscious of their true needs, as a Big Brother to assist them in the formulation of their claims. This dream of bleeding hearts and blue-eyed do-gooders can today be easily dismissed as the nonsense of an age already past. 'Needs', in a vastly more interdependent, complex, polluted, and crowded world, can no longer be identified and quantified, except through intense teamwork and scrutiny by systems specialists. And in this new world, the needs discourse becomes the pre-eminent device for reducing people to individual units with input requirements. [emphasis in original]

When this occurs, homo economicus is rapidly recognized as an obsolete myth - the planet can no longer afford this wasteful luxury - and replaced by homo systemicus. The needs of this latter invention metamorphose from economic wants into system requirements, these being determined by an exclusivist professional hegemony brooking no deviation whatsoever. The fact that many people today already recognize their systemic requirements principally argues the power of professional prestige and pedagogy, and the final loss of personal autonomy. ... people are turned into abstract elements of a mathematical stasis. The latest conceptualization of these abstract elements has been reached recently through the reinterpretation of the common man, who is now seen as a fragile and only provisionally functioning immune system always on the brink of breakdown. ...

to be continued ....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is pretty funny, John. Peter Jones is working across the room from me as I write.

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.