We were surprised recently to read a piece in The New Yorker accusing Ivan Illich of “naïveté,” specifically regarding certain ideas put forth in Tools for Conviviality. As we see it, writer Evgeny Morozov’s understanding of that book is just plain wrong, at least as reflected in his article of January 13, “Making It, Pick up a spot welder and join the revolution.”
His somewhat rambling essay offers a critique of what's known as the maker movement, an assortment of hobbyists that includes “3-D-printing enthusiasts who like making their own toys, instruments, and weapons; tinkerers and mechanics who like to customize household objects by outfitting them with sensors and Internet connectivity; and appreciators of craft who prefer to design their own objects and then have them manufactured on demand.” Some of these people talk about “making” as a third industrial revolution, as the “democratization of invention” that promises, for instance, to put the means of production in the hands of workers without the trouble of ditching capitalism for socialism. Morozov eyes all this with suitable skepticism, which we share, but he is quite mistaken when he throws Illich into the same pot.
We’ll say it up front, we’re big fans of Morozov. He’s one of the smartest, most insightful critics of the utopian visions, many of them marked by an intense streak of libertarianism, that grip so many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and their venture capital backers these days. These people make no bones about their aim to “change the world,” as the top executives at Google modestly put it, and to use more data and more algorithms to somehow make the world “better,” to tackle seemingly every political and social problem -- including mortality itself -- with large doses of ever-cheaper information technology.
The way they see things, the behavior of both machines and people is ripe for constant monitoring, management, and “optimization.” Every day, it seems, some new scheme is proposed that calls for automatically collecting mountains of data from multitudes of smart phones, physical sensors in sneakers, walls, and highways, from video cameras, Web browsers, and other machines and then, organizing and analyzing those data in search of tell-tale patterns and correlations. Even the human body can be monitored and managed this way, at least according to those involved in the so-called Quantified Self movement.
In fact, by combining this kind of “big data” analysis with the Net’s ability to send messages to people almost instantly, it’s easy to dangle carefully-crafted incentives in front of people to encourage them to change their behavior -- everything from 50 cents off a large latté at the Starbucks just around the corner to a juicy discount on electricity if you run your washing machine in the evening when demand is relatively low. Mr. Morozov sketches out one scheme that proposes, quite seriously, to encourage more recycling at home by making a game of it. Cameras inside each recycling bin would enable a central computer to gauge every household’s recycling activity, pitting neighbors against each other in a scramble for monthly prizes.
One way to understand all this is as an attempt to remake the world into a giant Skinner box, with incentives and punishments rigged to get people to follow some kind of centrally administered program -- an approach whose appeal may well grow in step with the increasing scarcity of material goods and services and the falling price of sensors and telecommunications.
Morozov has coined the term “solutionism” for this kind of “there’s-an-app-for-that” approach, and he does a good job of deflating it. No, he argued in his first book, The Net Delusion, Facebook and Twitter were not as important to the Arab Spring uprisings and other mass political movements as so many geek-activists and talking heads have enthused. Social media was a factor but much more important were years of on-the-ground political organizing and education. Likewise, social media are not necessarily a great fix for the political problems that established democracies are struggling with.
In last year’s To Save Everything, Click Here, Morozov argued that as a term, “the Internet” always should take quotation marks. Why? Because there is no such thing as “the Internet,” because those words “can mean just about anything,” he writes, which has led to a great deal of awfully sloppy thinking.
“The Internet,” Morozov makes clear, is not an entirely natural phenomenon, a gift from the gods that sprang into existence in a perfect political vacuum, as many technologists seem to think. And therefore, in his eyes, it’s wrong to champion the Net’s radically decentralized set-up, combining the resources and behaviors of millions of independently operated computers, as a compelling model for re-organizing -- and thus making more “efficient” (a key word in this discourse) -- everything from government to schooling, policing, and democracy itself.
In fact, Morozov states, the Internet and all of its many services are the product of countless political and business decisions made by all sorts of actors -- engineers, corporations, government agencies, hackers, researchers, and entrepreneurs, for instance. And so, “the Internet” we all know and love might well have evolved quite differently than it has, making available a much different menu of services. And equally important, Morozov notes, most if not all of what the Internet is revered for today -- connecting people across large distances, enabling the sharing of knowledge, and so forth -- was accomplished quite well long before the computer and computer networking were a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Think post office, radio, telegraphy. The point being that “the Internet” may not be quite the epochal turning point in civilization that so many solutionistas make it out to be; it may be simply “a shift in order and magnitude,” Morozov writes, that hardly calls for a “complete overthrow of established practices and principles.” (We’ll never forget hearing a man named John Perry Barlow, an early promoter of all things Internet, describing the Net as “the most important invention since fire.”)
In a way, Morozov has put his finger on something that Ivan Illich was onto during the last decades of his life, namely the instrumentalization of seemingly everything, which in turn leads to an intensive systemization. In a world teeming with physical sensors, mobile computers (e.g. smartphones), and wireless networks, all of them connected into a vast array of computers, mass storage systems, and communications links known collectively as “the cloud,” all sorts of objects take on a new role. That car you drive to work each day is no longer merely a vehicle, it’s now also an appendage, a sensor node, feeding into a vast information-processing system -- perhaps harnessed to help monitor traffic flows in a certain region, or to help the manufacturer gauge wear and tear on its products. And in such a world, the kind of systems-theoretic thinking that Illich turned against in his later years becomes difficult to resist.
In Click Here Morozov specifically notes Illich’s “protestations against the highly efficient but dehumanizing systems of professional schooling and medicine.” And later in the book, the author quotes Illich talking about the Penn State student who declined his offer of a second glass of apple cider because, she tells him, “my sugar requirements are met for today. I don’t want to get into a sugar high.” This woman, Illich reckoned, had come to understand herself not as flesh and blood but as a system with needs.
Discussing the fundamental weakness of the “needs discourse” and how it lends itself so easily to quantification, Morozov goes on to note that ”obstacles and barriers create the conditions in which our very humanity can come into existence,” a statement that Illich himself might have made in discussing needs, limits, and one of his favorite themes, renunciation.
Which makes it all the more surprising that Morozov gets Illich so wrong in his New Yorker piece. In the first two-thirds of his article, he surveys the maker movement, viewing it as a new counterculture that resurrects the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century while also inheriting the hacking ethic promoted by Stewart Brand and his Whole Earth Catalog in the 1970s. Brand originally aimed to help those seeking to live “off the grid” by providing “access to tools” -- everything from from wood stoves to grain grinders, from tents to farming equipment. But as early as the mid-1970s, Brand was trumpeting the computer as the ultimate tool for social revolution. The cybernetic worldview was a main them of the his Catalog, as espoused by Gregory Bateson and others.
Brand was hardly alone, of course, as Morozov points out. In the 1970s, some politically-minded engineers in Silicon Valley got together to form the Homebrew Computer Club. Their aim was to foster a do-it-yourself culture around personal computers, which were just then becoming feasible to build thanks to a new generation of electronic components. A key member of this scene was one Lee Felsenstein, who went on to lead the development of something called the Computer Memory project. It sought to pepper the city of Berkeley with public-access computer terminals all connected by phone lines to a central computer, thus creating an electronic bulletin board that people would be free to use however they wished -- to sell a car, organize political actions, find jobs, or simply vent their thoughts.
Mr. Felsenstein has spoken about taking inspiration from Tools for Conviviality, particularly its call for tools that non-professionals can use, understand, and repair. This was the way vacuum tube-based radios were, their workings fairly easy to grasp and open to tinkering and modification, so why not computers, as well? Felsenstein was prompted not only to pour his energy into the Homebrew Computer Club and Community Memory but also to come up with a series of computer designs that would have significant impact on the nascent personal computing market. Easily the most successful of his hardware designs was the Osborne 1 computer, a “luggable” PC the size of a small suitcase which sold by the tens of thousands.
Where Morozov goes wrong is in his conflating Felsenstein’s thinking with that of Illich. Morozov takes Felsenstein’s devotion to the computer to be Illich’s, but nowhere -- not in Tools nor in any other of his writings that we're aware of -- does Illich tout the computer as anything special or revolutionary.
Felsenstein got his inspiration from reading Ivan Illich’s “Tools for Conviviality,” which called for devices and machines that would be easy to understand, learn, and repair, thus making experts and institutions unnecessary. “Convivial tools rule out certain levels of power, compulsion, and programming, which are precisely those features that now tend to make all governments look more or less alike,” Illich wrote. He had little faith in traditional politics. Whereas Stewart Brand wanted citizens to replace politics with savvy shopping, Illich wanted to “retool” society so that traditional politics, with its penchant for endless talk, becomes unnecessary.
He goes on:
“ … the naïveté of Illich and his followers shouldn’t be underestimated. Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can’t predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. Instead of deinstitutionalizing society, the radicals would have done better to advocate reinstitutionalizing it: pushing for political and legal reforms to secure the transparency and decentralization of power they associated with their favorite technology.”
Now, from our reading of Tools, there’s no evidence that Illich had lost faith in traditional politics. Indeed, his book is in large part an explicit call for political action, for setting politically-defined limits on tools so as to enable the flourishing of convivial society. With such limits in place, people would certainly be able to adopt new tools and technologies but there’s no place where Illich points to any particular machine, high-tech or otherwise, as key to his vision. For all he cared, society might simply re-emphasize those existing tools that are most appropriate to convivial life. For example, set a limit on the top speed of vehicles at, say, 25mph and people would find the bicycle and perhaps the motorbike more appropriate than high-speed automobiles. Tractors would likely be appropriate, too, and perhaps others types of low-speed vehicles, depending on the local terrain and economy -- vehicles that today are essentially pushed off the roads by high-energy, high-speed traffic that serves only an upper tier of society.
In fact, Illich sought radical change in the political system, but not merely in traditional terms of who owns the means of production: “The transition to socialism cannot be affected without an inversion of our present institutions and the substitution of convivial for industrial tools.”
What’s more, while Felsenstein and many others certainly embraced the computer as “their favorite technology” and worked to change the world with it, that doesn’t mean that Illich’s thinking was necessarily the same. He was too smart, we believe, to latch onto any particular tool or technology as having the ability to single-handedly change society. More important was a deeper awareness of what tools do to society and of how politically-defined limits on tools can foster conviviality. Illich writes:
“I do not want to contribute to an engineering manual for the design of convivial institutions or tools, nor do I want to engage in a sales campaign for what would be obviously a better technology. My purpose is to lay down criteria by which the manipulation of people for the sake of their tools can be immediately recognized, and thus to exclude those artifacts and institutions which inevitably extinguish a convivial life style. [emphasis added]
Yes, in Deschooling Society Illich proposes a computer-based system for matching up individuals interested in discussing a particular book or topic, but contrary to what many advocates of “distance learning” and online courses seem to believe, he did not see or promote the computer as a replacement for face-to-face encounters. Illich was prescient in his idea for using the computer, but this matching of individuals with shared interests could be -- and indeed was -- implemented quite effectively with a simple box of file cards. In general, it’s fair to say, while Illich certainly made good use of computers for his own work, he remained wary of it as a particularly seductive system, especially as the computer and its disembodied, placeless text came to replace the book, with its relatively static and tangible text, as a root metaphor deeply shaping modern thinking.
Another idea worth keeping in mind is that Illich wrote Tools for Conviviality mainly for the sake of those in the “undeveloped world,” that “two-thirds of mankind [that] 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.” Thus, he was less interested in helping the industrialized world to fix itself and much more interested in warning the non-industrialized nations to take another route and thereby avoid the troubles -- environmental pollution, the over-programming of people through compulsory schooling, fast rising costs for medical care, and so forth -- with which the US and other nations in the North already were having to wrestle.