An Invitation to Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality

— Anirudh Wodeyar

I have been looking for books that help me understand our world, and help me articulate my struggles with it for a while now. This is one of those books.

Tools for Conviviality laid bare why I find difficulty managing the speed at which the world operates — we’ve opted for a world that wants to go too fast at everything: cars, growth, new technology, travel, work. And my sense of being doesn’t operate at that speed. It has taken me years to justify to myself that it’s ok to operate at my own pace. Now I can actually tell you why it’s ok.

We make our tools and our tools make us. Illich takes the adage and truly sees how this affects our world. He defines the word tool in the broadest sense, as:

… those aspects of our current society that have been rationally designed.

Any system created through reasoned thinking is a tool.

Our most dangerous tool right now is industrial productivity. It has taken over our minds and our actions, and is steadily – no, exponentially – chipping away at our world. Illich sees how industrial productivity’s ends have embedded themselves as values now.1 It has taken over many aspects of our thinking to the point that every person wants to be productive, have everything occur on the large scale (“making an impact”), and to have everything happen fast – from getting our knowledge on Google to making social change happen instantly, or never. Or as Illich says: “Better becoming the enemy of the good”.

One of the biggest things I learned from this book, represented by how we are warped by industrial productivity, was that we have a cognitive bias: we lose focus on the means and focus instead on the ends. Illich describes this bias through the occurrence of two “watersheds”.The first “watershed” occurs when we see that an action, a tool or a way of being is of value (the means for something) and the second “watershed” when whatever had value becomes divorced from the source of the value and is worshipped for its own sake (the ends).

Take schools.2 They were a tool intended to be a place for learning. This has value, learning is intrinsic to growing up. But we inverted it. Schools now act as an over-structured place of learning where it is measured by way of tests. The tests end up representing learning itself. Measurement inevitably corrupts what is being measured.3

Now, we see years of schooling, years of passing tests, as representing learning instead of realizing anyone can learn. We have even economically stratified around the idea of years of schooling. We shun people who don’t go through school or dropout. I always felt it was a mistake to judge this way but could never fully articulate the reason why: the ends have become the means.

Schooling is now a commodity that doesn’t really impart any learning, it imparts certification: how often do we now say that colleges are just a place for networking? Or that we should do a safe degree that ensures us a well-paying job? Or that we should go to prestigious schools – why do schools have prestige anyway? We’ve forgotten what we valued about schools in the first place.

This leads to the over-professionalization of jobs. The sense that only a professional can practice law or medicine or be a professor. That you need certifications that testify to this ability. The certifications have become the means, losing what was actually valuable – the learning needed to help continue the dialogue of justice or the practice of healing or the practice of exposing what is not immediately obvious.

Illich’s thoughts on medicine, another tool, are revealing too. Here’s another modern institution where our cognitive bias has come to play a role. Originally it was made to help provide value by healing systematically. Now it offers us “get out of suffering free” cards. Instead of guiding us through the process of being human, we are overdosed on opiates. And our lives are extended far beyond times when we can continue to have real meaning.

Science has fallen prey to similar issues. Of course there was the first watershed – science systematizes a way to understand the world, something of great value to us all. Then came the second watershed – we began to measure science by what it can do for industrial productivity. We started to ask “what can it do for us?” and it warped what science could be, and perhaps should be.

Illich doesn’t say much about politics, trying to be focused on tools more directly, but he does have one of my favorite lines ever: “Changes in management is not a revolution.”

So wait, what is a convivial tool then?

A convivial tool is like the abacus or the telephone or the mail (so centralization doesn’t imply non-conviviality). You can work with the tool, use your primary experience to feel for how it functions, not necessarily its internals but just what it was meant to do and apply yourself creatively in the act of using it. To use the tool as a complement to your own ways of being. You can also forget about the tool and live your life without feeling a sense of something missing.

I remember watching a documentary (called 100UP) about a woman who was able to manage a farm while past an age of 100. Every tool she’s using to pull that off is convivial. They’re helping her use her energy in a way she wishes to use it and in the best way she could use it for herself.

How can we recognize when a tool is convivial?

When the source of value for the tool is identified and when it can be used to gain value to whatever degree we want to use it. Maybe, but I’m not totally sure.

A lot of our current tools are not convivial because they’ve coerced us with “radical monopolies” – another Illichism. These tools provide the only possible mode of performing some action. Cars are critical for travel. Smartphones are critical for communication. The internet is critical for information. My 15 years of schooling is critical for me to do, and get money for (not that there’s a real distinction), research. The sense of constant growth or a global supply chain monopolizes my lifestyle. Pleasure-seeking is the only mode of being I really know how to inhabit.

That last one is truly perplexing. We live in a world that, for those in upper economic strata, is filled with options for open-ended hedonism. Yet the world always feels not enough: in other words, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). We’ve overcommitted our hedonism. What a paradox!

Illich’s suggestion for dealing with our current inhuman situation is to enforce humanity back onto it. To pull everything – productivity, speed, consumption – onto more human scales rather than industrial productivity scales. Essentially a form of what we would now consider ‘austerity’, though in my eyes it seems more luxurious than ascetic. To be slowed down. To be more and know (when it’s only in the abstract) less. To use less. Sounds lovely. This isn’t a design change. This is a systemic overhaul. We have systemic scalism and it needs to go.

George Saunders in his essay “The New Mecca” writes of meeting a Kenyan security guard in Dubai. The guard asks him rhetorically if, when writing about Dubai, he’ll follow the “Western” tradition of finding something positive and something negative. Instead, the guard says: “I have found Dubai to be perfect”. That’s how I feel about Tools for Conviviality. It has a bit of a religious fervor when seen in that way. But a good polemic should do just that, right?

Anirudh Wodeyar is a neuroscientist and hobbyist photographer with an interest in critical theory.

  1. Mark Fisher in his book of the same name, has referred to this as “capitalist realism”. And it has been often phrased as “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. ↩︎

  2. The NotA Collective. (2022, February 7). School Is Cancelled! An Invitation to Deschooling Society. Notes on the Academy. ↩︎

  3. Measurement is the intrinsic problem being pointed out across tools. The measurement becomes the element we valued instead of whatever qualitative, impossible-to-exactly-quantify aspect of the tool we cared about. ↩︎

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