Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich

Tools for Conviviality — Ivan Illich -London: Marion Boyars, 2009.

If I can say that I have a gift, it is to recognize a book that deserves to be read. Or I simply read many and among the many, there are good ones.

Then I have the curse of passing over the important books for years (I haven’t read Anne Frank’diary for example yet) and getting there only after a long time. This is the case with Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich.

I dealt with Technical objects by reading Simondon, who was a French philosopher with whom I sympathize and use in some academic papers.

Simondon also talks about tools from a broad perspective. Then the question of coexistence with tools is alive as never before, if we think of the robots among us, the surveillance cameras that spy on us, and the devices that listen to us and collect data continuously.

For the author, a tool is used in a broad sense, to indicate objects of common use but also a factory: tools that can be used for imaginative, and independent work; others to be used primarily in activities labeled as labor; and, finally, certain machines can only be operated.

L’uaotre insists on the concept of coexistence in the sense of rational use of the object, or use of the object at the service of the ability and possibility of man and woman to express themselves to the maximum of their energy and creativity. At the same time, they enrich the environment with a new vision.
On the contrary, industrial objects close and reduce everything to a single vision, the one preconditioned by industrial processes and by power, commercial and economic logic.

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.” (p. 28)

The author defends a society that is not predetermined, but free to establish itself continuously. For this he criticizes the scholastic and educational processes which are rigid and conditional with the inclusion/exclusion of the possible and various choices of a student:

A convivial society does not exclude all schools. It does exclude a school system which has been perverted into a compulsory tool, denying privileges to the dropout” (p. 32).

For him, the issue is what tools can be controlled in the public interest. The author reminds me of Spinoza’s treatise, of which I find some echoes: the idea of a rational society that is capable of self-limiting personal advantage in favor and at the service of a greater, collective, and distributed well.

There will be a further increase of useful things for useless people. But science can also be used to simplify tools and to enable the layman to shape his immediate environment to his taste” (p. 43)

The author’s perspective is quite provocative when contrasted with the communication we receive every day:

Just as with proper social arrangements most people would
grow up as readers without having to be schooled” (p. 45)

From Deschooling to Deprofessionalization as a means of recreating a society entangled in norms and rules, to put oneself at the service of what matters: the energy of the body, the creative imagination of the mind, and the will to coexist in the abundance of sharing.

Concepts of sobriety come into play and question this rush to BETTER of everything, which is leading nowhere because based on a FIXED expert measurement. Illich calls to find areas of frustration to replace them with new personal and collective perspectives. If we think of the climatic urgency in which we are, the path undertaken today by the institutions is still out of control and without a destination.

From unlimited to limited
From abundance to sobriety
From absolute freedom to rational self-control
From specialization to the “art of getting along” (Arte di arrangiarsi in the Italian language)
From schooling to deschooling
From professionalism to deprofessionalism


My problem with my education is that I believed in too many voices that arrived in my head through television, journal, and books. A rational analysis of where we are now as humanity -like proposed by ILLICH — shows that MANY voices are wrong: the space for alternative solutions has to be defended and enlarged.

Gaining a new focus, a new awareness too quickly entrusted elsewhere:

There are two ranges in the growth of tools: the range within which machines are used to extend human capability and the range in which they are used to contract, eliminate, or replace human functions” (p.99).

Their imagination of the possible and of the feasible is determined by the lore of industry” (p. 109).


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