Thursday, June 24, 2010

The one with the Anarchist Globetrotting Priest

It's a shame that the vast contributions of Ivan Illich have been obscured by his portrayal, in the later years of his life, as a troublesome anarchist. As his fascinating obituary notes, "He was far more significant as an archaeologist of ideas, someone who helped us to see the present in a truer and richer perspective, than as an ideologue."

I wasn't even aware of him until a few months ago, when I came across his 1973 Tools for Conviviality, a remarkable critique of industrialism and its technology. Nothing like "anarchy" jumped out at me. Rather, I was struck by his ability to see the big picture--he "gets it," which I've found to be rare among people who write about technology and society, who often get caught up in hype or triviality--and by his prescience.

Illich proposed the concept of convivial tools, or technologies that foster creative and autonomous interactions between people. He claimed that since people “need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has,” 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.” Here's an introductory excerpt:

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.

Twenty and thirty years later, convivial tools (by a variety of other names) are the big deal. Look at Manuel Castells' The Rise of the Network Society, Kevin Kelly's 1998 New Rules for the New Economy, Yochai Benkler's 2006 The Wealth of Networks, and Adler and Heckscher's Collaborative Community, just to name a few. The "it" technologies that are part of the now widely proclaimed transformation from the industrial economy to the networked information economy (Benkler's phrase), like open source, peer publishing, web 2.0, user-developed virtual environments, and basically any of the technologies based on collaboration, contribution, and flexibility, fit the convivial tools description. Decentralization, horizontal rather than vertical organizational structures, new modes of production, and interdependent autonomy are the themes.

I'm really interested in what these themes might (or might not) imply for the economy and employment. Recently I've been researching what digital media might mean for employment for people with disabilities, and if there is going to be an impact, I think the "conviviality" is key. It is the concept of autonomy through interdependent efficacy (rather than through isolated independence) that is so relevant, and that seems to be the link between disability studies, sociology, and employment.

So when I first came across Illich, I was impressed that he called it so far ahead. Then I was even more impressed when I saw the scope of his publications on education, technology, health, history, gender, pain (he was plagued by a painful facial tumor), and politics. Reading more about his life, I learned that he was also a Catholic priest, an activist, and a polyglot. He travelled the world and lived in other countries, working with, rather than opposed to, the cultures he encountered. He was global before being global was the thing. I think those are a few clues as to why he "got it"-- the breadth of his knowledge and insight, his cultural exposure, his intense experiences, maybe even his pain.

No comments:

Post a Comment