Ivan Illich





This is an extract from chapter II of Tools for Conviviality. Ivan Illich, as a very unconventional thinker, has anticipated in his writings many ideas that are now becoming part and parcel of common sense and widespread practice. Conviviality, like deschooling, is one of them.



The symptoms of accelerated crisis are widely recognized.
Multiple attempts have been made to explain them. I believe that this crisis is rooted in a major twofold experiment which has failed, and I claim that the resolution of the crisis begins with a recognition of the failure. 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 on which the experiment was built must now be discarded. The hypothesis was that machines can replace slaves.

The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men. Neither a dictatorial proletariat nor a leisure mass can escape the dominion of constantly expanding industrial tools.
The crisis can be solved only if we learn to invert the present deep structure of tools; if we give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high, independent efficiency, thus simultaneously eliminating the need for either slaves or masters and enhancing each person’s range of freedom.

People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them. They need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well-programmed energy slaves. I believe that society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines.

In fact, the institutions of industrial society do just the opposite. As the power of machines increases, the role of persons more and more decreases to that of mere consumers.
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.

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. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.

Present institutional purposes, which hallow industrial productivity at the expense of convivial effectiveness, are a major factor in the amorphousness and meaninglessness that plague contemporary society. The increasing demand for products has come to define society’s process. I will suggest how this present trend can be reversed and how modern science and technology can be used to endow human activity with unprecedented effectiveness. This reversal would permit the evolution of a life style and of a political system which give priority to the protection, the maximum use, and the enjoyment of the one resource that is almost equally distributed among all people: personal energy under personal control.



As an alternative to technocratic disaster, I propose the vision of a convivial society. A convivial society would be the result of social arrangements that guarantee for each member the most ample and free access to the tools of the community and limit this freedom only in favour of another member’s equal freedom.

At present people tend to relinquish the task of envisaging the future to a professional élite. They transfer power to politicians who promise to build up the machinery to deliver this future.
They accept a growing range of power levels in society when inequality is needed to maintain high outputs. Political institutions themselves become draft mechanisms to press people into complicity with output goals. What is right comes to be subordinated to what is good for institutions. Justice is debased to mean the equal distribution of institutional wares.

The individual’s autonomy is intolerably reduced by a society that defines the maximum satisfaction of the maximum number as the largest consumption of industrial goods. Alternate political arrangements would have the purpose of permitting all people to define the images of their own future. New politics would aim principally to exclude the design of artifacts and rules that are obstacles to the exercise of this personal freedom. Such politics would limit the scope of tools as demanded by the protection of three values: survival, justice, and self-defined work. I take these values to be fundamental to any convivial society, however different one such society might be from another in practice, institutions, or rationale.

Each of these three values imposes its own limits on tools. The conditions for survival are necessary but not sufficient to ensure justice; people can survive in prison. The conditions for the just distribution of industrial outputs are necessary, but not sufficient to promote convivial production. People can be equally enslaved by their tools. The conditions for convivial work are structural arrangements that make possible the just distribution of unprecedented power.

A postindustrial society must and can be so constructed that no one person’s ability to express him or herself in work will require as a condition the enforced labour or the enforced learning or the enforced consumption of another.

In an age of scientific technology, the convivial structure of tools is a necessity for survival in full justice which is both distributive and participatory. This is so because science has opened new energy sources. Competition for inputs must lead to destruction, while their central control in the hands of a Leviathan would sacrifice equal control over inputs to the semblance of an equal distribution of outputs. Rationally designed convivial tools have become the basis for participatory justice.



Our present attitudes toward production have been formed over the centuries. Increasingly, institutions have not only shaped our demands but also in the most literal sense our logic, or sense of proportion. Having come to demand what institutions can produce, we soon believe that we cannot do without them.

 The invention of education is an example of what I mean. We often forget that education acquired its present sense only recently. It was unknown before the Reformation, except as that part of early upbringing which is common to piglets, ducks, and men. It was clearly distinguished from the instruction needed by the young, and from the study in which some engaged later on in life and for which a teacher was needed. Voltaire still called it a presumptuous neologism, used only by pretentious schoolmasters.

The endeavour to put all men through successive stages of enlightenment is rooted deeply in alchemy, the Great Art of the waning Middle Ages. John Amos Comenius, a Moravian bishop of the seventeenth century, a self-styled pansophist and pedagogue, is rightly considered one of the founders of the modern school. He was among the first to propose seven or twelve grades of compulsory learning. In his Magna Didactica he described schools as devices to “teach everybody everything” and outlined a blueprint for the assembly-line production of knowledge, which according to his method would make education cheaper and better and make growth into full humanity possible for all. But Comenius was not only an early theoretician of mass production, he was an alchemist who adapted the technical language of his craft to describe the art of rearing children. The alchemist sought to refine base elements by graduating their spirits through twelve stages of successive enlightenment, so that for their own and all the world’s benefit they might be transformed into gold. Of course, alchemists failed no matter how often they tried, but each time their “science” yielded new reasons for their failure, and they tried again.

The industrial mode of production was first fully rationalized in the manufacture of a new invisible commodity, called “education.” Pedagogy opened a new chapter in the history of the Ars Magna. Education became the search for an alchemic process that would bring forth a new type of man who would fit into an environment created by scientific magic. But no matter how much each generation spent on its schools, it always turned out that the majority of people were certified as unfit for higher grades of enlightenment and had to be discarded as unprepared for the good life in a man-made world.

Not only has the redefinition of learning as schooling made schools seem necessary, it has also compounded the poverty of the unschooled with discrimination against the uneducated. People who have climbed up the ladder of schooling know where they dropped out and how uneducated they are. Once they accept the authority of an agency to define and measure their level of knowledge, they easily go on to accept the authority of other agencies to define for them their level of appropriate health or mobility. It is difficult for them to identify the structural corruption of our major institutions. Just as they come to believe in the value of the “knowledge stock” they acquired in school, so they come to believe that higher speeds save time and that income levels define well-being or, as an alternative, that the production of more services rather than more goods increases the quality of life.

The commodity called “education” and the institution called “school” make each other necessary. The circle can be broken only by a widely shared insight that the institution has come to define the purpose. Values abstractly stated are reduced to mechanical processes that enslave men. This serfdom can be broken only by the joyful self-recognition of the fool who assumes personal responsibility for his folly.

The institutional definition of values has made it difficult to focus our attention on the deep structure of social means. It is hard to imagine that the division of sciences, of labour, and of professions has gone too far. It is difficult to conceive of higher social effectiveness with lower industrial efficiency. To recognize the nature of desirable limits to specialization and output, we must focus our attention on the industrially determined shape of our expectations. Only then can we recognize that the emergence of a convivial and pluralist mode of production will follow the limitation of industrial institutions.

In the past, convivial life for some inevitably demanded the servitude of others. Labour efficiency was low before the steel axe, the pump, the bicycle, and the nylon fishing line. Between the High Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, the alchemic dream misled many otherwise authentic Western humanists. The illusion prevailed that the machine was a laboratory-made homunculus, and that it could do our labour instead of slaves. It is now time to correct this mistake and shake off the illusion that men are born to be slaveholders and that the only thing wrong in the past was that not all men could be equally so. By reducing our expectations of machines, however, we must guard against falling into the equally damaging rejection of all machines as if they were works of the devil.

A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others. People feel joy, as opposed to mere pleasure, to the extent that their activities are creative; while the growth of tools beyond a certain point increases regimentation, dependence, exploitation, and impotence. I use the term “tool” broadly enough to include not only simple hardware such as drills, pots, syringes, brooms, building elements, or motors, and not just large machines like cars or power stations; I also include among tools productive institutions such as factories that produce tangible commodities like corn flakes or electric current, and productive systems for intangible commodities such as those which produce “education,” “health,” “knowledge,” or “decisions.” I use this term because it allows me to subsume into one category all rationally designed devices, be they artifacts or rules, codes or operators, and to distinguish all these planned and engineered instrumentalities from other things such as basic food or implements, which in a given culture are not deemed to be subject to rationalization. School curricula or marriage laws are no less purposely shaped social devices than road networks.

Tools are intrinsic to social relationships. An individual relates himself in action to his society through the use of tools that he actively masters, or by which he is passively acted upon. To the degree that he 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 tool determines his own 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. Most tools today cannot be used in a convivial fashion.

Hand tools are those which adapt man’s metabolic energy to a specific task. They can be multipurpose, like some primitive hammers or good modern pocket knives, or again they can be highly specific in design such as spindles, looms, or pedal-driven sewing machines, and dentists’ drills. They can also be complex such as a transportation system built to get the most in mobility out of human energy - for instance, a bicycle system composed of a series of man-powered vehicles, such as pushcarts and three-wheel rickshaws, with a corresponding road system equipped with repair stations and perhaps even covered roadways. Hand tools are mere transducers of the energy generated by man’s extremities and fed by the intake of air and of nourishment.

Power tools are moved, at least partially, by energy converted outside the human body. Some of them act as amplifiers of human energy: the oxen pull the plough, but man works with the oxen - the result is obtained by pooling the powers of beast and man. Power saws and motor pulleys are used in the same fashion. On the other hand, the energy used to steer a jet plane has ceased to be a significant fraction of its power output. The pilot is reduced to a mere operator guided by data which a computer digests for him. The machine needs him for lack of a better computer; or he is in the cockpit because the social control of unions over airplanes imposes his presence.

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. The use of such tools by one person does not restrain another from using them equally. They do not require previous certification of the user. Their existence does not impose any obligation to use them. They allow the user to express his meaning in action.

Some institutions are structurally convivial tools. The telephone is an example. Anybody can dial the person of his choice if he can afford a coin. If untiring computers keep the lines occupied and thereby restrict the number of personal conversations, this is a misuse by the company of a license given so that persons can speak. The telephone lets anybody say what he wants to the person of his choice; he can conduct business, express love, or pick a quarrel. It is impossible for bureaucrats to define what people say to each other on the phone, even though they can interfere with - or protect - the privacy of their exchange.

Most hand tools lend themselves to convivial use unless they are artificially restricted through some institutional arrangements. They can be restricted by becoming the monopoly of one profession, as happens with dentist drills through the requirement of a license and with libraries or laboratories by placing them within schools. Also, tools can be purposely limited when simple pliers and screwdrivers are insufficient to repair modern cars. This institutional monopoly or manipulation usually constitutes an abuse and changes the nature of the tool as little as the nature of the knife is changed by its abuse for murder.

In principle the distinction between convivial and manipulatory tools is independent of the level of technology of the tool. What has been said of the telephone could be repeated point by point for the mails or for a typical Mexican market. Each is an institutional arrangement that maximizes liberty, even though in a broader context it can be abused for purposes of manipulation and control. The telephone is the result of advanced engineering; the mails require in principle little technology and considerable organization and scheduling; the Mexican market runs with minimum planning along customary patterns.

Any institution that moves toward its second watershed tends to become highly manipulative. For instance, it costs more to make teaching possible than to teach. The cost of roles exceeds the cost of production. Increasingly, components intended for the accomplishment of institutional purposes are redesigned so that they cannot be used independently. People without cars have no access to planes and people without plane tickets have no access to convention hotels. Alternate tools which are fit to accomplish the same purposes with fewer claims are pushed off the market. For instance, civilized correspondence becomes a lost art. During the last several years this barring of alternatives has usually coincided with the increased power of the tool and the development of more complex tool systems.

It is possible that not every means of desirable production in a postindustrial society would fit the criteria of conviviality. It is probable that even in an overwhelmingly convivial world some communities would choose greater affluence at the cost of some restrictions on creativity. It is almost certain that in a period of transition from the present to the future mode of production in certain countries electricity would not commonly be produced in the backyard. It is also true that trains must run on tracks and stop on schedule at a limited number of points. Oceangoing vessels are built for one purpose; if they were sailing clippers, they might be even more specialized for one route than are present tankers. Telephone systems are highly determined for the transmission of messages of a certain band width and must be centrally administered even if they are limited to the service of only one area.

It is a mistake to believe that all large tools and all centralized production would have to be excluded from a convivial society. It would equally be a mistake to demand that for the sake of conviviality the distribution of industrial goods and services be reduced to the minimum consistent with survival in order to protect the maximum equal right to self-determined participation. Different balances between distributive justice and participatory justice can prevail in societies equally striving for post-industrial conviviality, depending on the history, political ideals, and physical resources of a community.

What is fundamental to a convivial society is not the total absence of manipulative institutions and addictive goods and services, but the balance between those tools which create the specific demands they are specialized to satisfy and those complementary, enabling tools which foster self-realization. The first set of tools produces according to abstract plans for men in general; the other set enhances the ability of people to pursue their own goals in their unique way.


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