4 Illich foresees the Internet

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Ivan Illich was a visionary precursor of the digital revolution. Many of the principles that he advocated have been realised through the spread of the personal computer and the use of internet.

Illich criticised the present form of industrial society, but not technology itself. His thesis is that professional elites have established a monopoly over the use of technical means, and that people should break this monopoly and recover for themselves the mastery over tools.

Conviviality and the personal computer

Many developers of the first personal computers in the seventies saw the PC as a medium for the democratisation of computing power. One example is Lee Felsenstein, who had read Illich, and whose work was directly influenced by Illich’s idea of convivial tools. [1]

When the only computers were huge mainframes owned by large companies or organisations, these large owners inevitably exercised a certain form of control over access to and use of computing power. The PC put this computing power directly into the hands of the individual, thus liberating personal access and use from external control. Such liberation from external control corresponds to Illich’s idea of conviviality, as expressed for example in the following passage from "Tools for Conviviality" [2]:

    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 personal computer corresponds exactly to Illich’s definition of a tool that fosters conviviality, in that it can be "easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired".

Conviviality and internet

Just as the personal computer delivered computing power into the hands of the individual, so internet delivers to each user unprecedented access to information and knowledge. The internet revolution has introduced a radical democratisation of access to information. Perhaps even more significant is the new power it gives to individuals to distribute and to share the information that they have.

Internet thus undermines the monopolisation of knowledge by elites, which Illich so steadfastly criticised, as in the following passage from "Tools for Conviviality":

    The institutionalization of knowledge leads to ... the illusion that the knowledge of the individual citizen is of less value than the “knowledge” of science. The former is the opinion of individuals. It is merely subjective and is excluded from policies. The latter is “objective” - defined by science and promulgated by expert spokesmen. This objective knowledge is viewed as a commodity which can be refined, constantly improved, accumulated and fed into a process, now called “decision-making.” This new mythology of governance by the manipulation of knowledge-stock inevitably erodes reliance on government by people.

One of the main results of the increased personal access to information via internet is a corresponding increase in the social value of the "knowledge of the individual citizen," to which Illich refers in the above citation.

Illich and "Learning Webs"

Illich published "Deschooling Society" [3] in 1971, while Arpanet, the ancestor of internet, only became truly functional in about 1972. But one chapter in that book already carried the prophetic title "Learning Webs." What is even more remarkable is that Illich explicitly described how such learning webs could be facilitated by a computer, as in the following passage on "peer matching":

    The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.

    In its most rudimentary form, communication between client and computer could be established by return mail. In big cities typewriter terminals could provide instantaneous responses. The only way to retrieve a name and address from the computer would be to list an activity for which a peer was sought. People using the system would become known only to their potential peers.

Nowadays such peer matching occurs massively on internet, where people with similar interests are brought into contact via blogs, forums and chats.

Illich noted that many of his colleagues of that time reacted against the idea of such impersonal "learning webs":

    Some people become genuinely agitated when one suggests the setting up of ad hoc encounters which are not rooted in the life of a local community. Others react when one suggests using a computer to sort and match client-identified interests. People cannot be drawn together in such an impersonal manner, they say.

Illich responds to such objections by defending the value of far-reaching participation in multiple peer groups:

    Centering demands on the neighborhood may, in fact, neglect an important liberating aspect of urban life - the ability of a person to participate simultaneously in several peer groups. Also, there is an important sense in which people who have never lived together in a physical community, may occasionally have far more experiences to share than those who have known each other from childhood.

With the widespread use of internet, most people now take for granted this "ability of a person to participate simultaneously in several peer groups." But the above citations show to what extent such an idea was controversial in the early seventies.

Illich was thus in many respects a prophet of the digital revolution.