Convivial Tools / Deschooling Society V2
Convivial Tools / Deschooling Society V2
Convivial Tools / Deschooling Society V2
Convivial Tools / Deschooling Society V2
Convivial Tools / Deschooling Society V2

Convivial Tools / Deschooling Society V2

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“A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others ... To the degree that an individual 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 tools determines his 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.” - Illich, Tools for Conviviality

Born in Vienna between the two wars, the public intellectual and radical priest Ivan Illich had by his mid-30s set out to rethink the world. In 1961, having arrived in Mexico by way of New York City and Puerto Rico, he started the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) learning center in Cuernavaca, an unlikely cross between a language school for missionaries, a free school, and a radical think tank, where he gathered thinkers and resources to conduct research on creating a world that empowered the oppressed and fostered justice.

Illich's achievement was a reframing of human relationships to systems and society, in everyday, accessible language. He advocated for the reintegration of community decision making and personal autonomy into all the systems that had become oppressive: school, work, law, religion, technology, medicine, economics. His ideas were influential for 1970s technologists and the appropriate technology movement -- can they be useful today?


In 1971, Illich published what is still his most famous book, Deschooling Society. He argued that the commodification and specialization of learning had created a harmful education system that had become an end in itself. In other words, "the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school." For Illich, language often pointed to how toxic ideas had poisoned the ways we relate to each other. "I want to learn," he said, had been transmuted by industrial capitalism into "I want to get an education," transforming a basic human need for learning into something transactional and coercive. He proposed a restructuring of schooling, replacing the manipulative system of qualifications with self-determined, community-supported, hands-on learning. One of his suggestions was for "learning webs," where a computer could help matchup learners and those who had knowledge to share. This skillshare model was popular in many radical communities.

With his book Tools for Conviviality published in 1971, Illich extended his analysis of education to a broader critique of the technologies of Western capitalism. The major inflection point in the history of technology, he asserts, is when, in the life of each tool or system, the means overtake the ends. "Tools can rule men sooner than they expect; the plow makes man the lord of the garden but also the refugee from the dust bowl." Often this effect is accompanied by the rise in power of a managerial class of experts; Illich saw technocracy as a step toward fascism. Tools for Conviviality points out the ways in which a helpful tool can evolve into a destructive one, and offers suggestions for how communities can escape the trap.

So what makes a tool "convivial?" For Illich, "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." That is, convivial technologies are accessible, flexible, and noncoercive. Many tools are neutral, but some promote conviviality and some choke it off. Hand tools, for Illich, are neutral. Illich offers the telephone as an example of a tool that is "structurally convivial" (remember, this is in the days of the ubiquitous public pay phone): anyone who can afford a coin can use it to say whatever they want. "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."

A "manipulatory" tool, on the other hand, blocks off other choices. The automobile and the highway system it spawned are, for Illich, prime examples of this process. Licensure systems that devalue people who have not received them, such as compulsory schooling, are another example. But these kinds of tools, that is, large-scale industrial production, would not be prohibited in a convivial society. "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." 

To foster convivial tools, Illich proposes a program of research with "two major tasks: to provide guidelines for detecting the incipient stages of murderous logic in a tool; and to devise tools and tool systems that optimize the balance of life, thereby maximizing liberty for all." He also suggests that pioneers of a convivial society work through the legal and political systems and reclaim them for justice. Change is possible, Illich argues. There are decision points. We cannot abdicate our right to self-determination, and to decide how far is far enough. "The crisis I have described," says Illich, "confronts people with a choice between convivial tools and being crushed by machines."

Illich's ideas on technology, like his ideas on schooling, were influential among those who spent the 1970s thinking that we might be on the cusp of another world. Some of those utopians included early computer innovators, who saw the culture of sharing, self-determination, and DIY that they lived as something that should be baked into tools.

Another book published in 1971 was Murray Bookchin’s "Post-Scarcity Anarchism," which contained a short essay entitled "Towards a Liberatory Technology." Bookchin described the possibility of an environmentally-friendly technology, which would "make man’s dependence upon the natural world a visible and living part of his culture". Bookchin envisaged small communities integrated into the natural environment and using small-scale technologies which permit decentralisation and autonomy. This article succinctly expressed the vision of a utopian ecological lifestyle, which was associated with the term "alternative technology.”

Computing pioneer Lee Felsenstein has spoken about the direct influence Tools for Conviviality on his work. For him, Illich's description of radio as a convivial tool in Central America was a model for computer development: "The technology itself was sufficiently inviting and accessible to them that it catalyzed their inherent tendencies to learn. In other words, if you tried to mess around with it, it didn't just burn out right away. The tube might overheat, but it would survive and give you some warning that you had done something wrong. The possible set of interactions, between the person who was trying to discover the secrets of the technology and the technology itself, was quite different from the standard industrial interactive model, which could be summed up as 'If you do the wrong thing, this will break, and God help you.' ... And this showed me the direction to go in. You could do the same thing with computers as far as I was concerned." Felsenstein was one of the original members of the Homebrew Computer Club and the designer of the Osborne 1, the first mass-produced portable computer.

Many of his designs were leaders in reducing the costs of computer technologies for the purpose of making them available to large markets. His work featured a concern for the social impact of technology. The Community Memory project was one of the earliest attempts to place networked computer terminals in such places as Berkeley supermarkets to attract casual use by persons from all walks of life passing through and facilitate social interactions among non-technical individuals, in the era before the Internet.

Felsenstein was influenced in his philosophy by the works of Ivan Illich, particularly Tools for Conviviality. This book advocated a "convivial" approach to design which allowed users of technologies to learn about the technology by encouraging exploration, tinkering, and modification. Felsenstein had learned about electronics in much the same fashion, and summarized his conclusions in several aphorisms, to wit – "In order to survive in a public-access environment, a computer must grow a computer club around itself." Others were – "To change the rules, change the tools," and "If work is to become play, then tools must become toys."

In 1978, Valentina Borremans of CIDOC prepared a Reference Guide to Convivial Tools. This guide to resources listed many of the new ideas in 1970s appropriate technology -- food self-sufficiency, earth-friendly home construction, new energy sources. But our contemporary convivial tools are mostly in the realm of communications. At their best, personal computers, the web, mobile technology, the open source movement, and the maker movement are contemporary convivial tools. What other convivial technologies do we use today? What tools do we need to make more convivial? Ivan Illich would exhort us to think carefully about the tools we use and what kind of world they are making.


“There can be no substitute for the work of rediscovering our common humanity in the practice of hospitality, which, insofar as it flowers into friendship, will be the starting point of politics.”


Deschooling Society 

Ivan Illich was one of the most visionary political and social thinkers of the twentieth century. The book that brought Illich to public attention was Deschooling Society, a critical discourse on education as practiced in "modern" economies. Full of detail on contemporary programs and concerns, the book remains as radical today as it was when first published. Giving examples of the ineffectual nature of institutionalized education, Illich posited self-directed education, supported by intentional social relations, in fluid informal arrangements:

“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education--and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries.” 

The last sentence makes clear what the title suggests, that the institutionalization of education tends towards the institutionalization of society and that ideas for de-institutionalizing education may be a starting point for a de-institutionalized society. The book is more than a critique, it contains suggestions for a reinvention of learning throughout society and lifetime. Particularly striking is his call for the use of advanced technology to support "learning webs”:

“Educational resources are usually labelled according to educators curricular goals. I propose to do the contrary, to label four different approaches which enable the student to gain access to any educational resource which may help them to define and achieve their own goals: 

  1. Reference services to educational objects – which facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning. Some of these things can be reserved for this purpose, stored in libraries, rental agencies, laboratories and showrooms like museums and theaters; others can be in daily use in factories, airports or on farms, but made available to students as apprentices or on off-hours.
  1. Skill exchanges – which permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached.
  1. Peer-matching – a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry.
  1. Reference services to educators-at-large – who can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals and freelancers, along with conditions of access to their services. Such educators… could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients.”

“Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is "schooled" to accept service in place of value.

Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.”

One critique of Deschooling Society was by Harvard professor Herbert Gintis, who from his Marxist perspective, criticized Illich’s in his attempt of explaining the problems of industrial capitalism through an analysis of a part of the whole system. According to Gintis, issues like alienation in capitalist social and political structures could only be explained by studying the means of production in the capitalist system, and not by analyzing institutions used by capitalism to maintain its own structures. As a Marxist, Gintis could not accept that human beings’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviours were linked to secular institutions like schools. Nevertheless, Gintis was one of the few intellectuals that, rather than taking a stand for or against schools, tried to understand the method of analysis offered by Illich in his book. 

“I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a life-style which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a life-style which only allows us to make and unmake, produce and consume - a style of life which is merely a way station of the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon the choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies.”