1 The Characteristics of Convivial Tools

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The characteristics of convivial tools are those which enhance the user’s capability to work with independent efficiency. A fairly comprehensive list might include the following characteristics:
  • Usability
  • Intuitive Use
  • Reliability
  • Reparability
  • Durability
  • Ergonomics
  • Simplicity
  • Robustness
  • Open access
  • Modularity
  • Recyclability
  • Environmental friendliness
  • Social friendliness
  • Promotion of autonomy
  • Full service
  • Eutrapelia

The above characteristics are discussed briefly below, and in more detail in the linked pages.

The most important convivial characteristic is certainly Usability, or the ease with which a tool can be used. Usability refers to what is more commonly called "User Friendliness."

The subject of Usability is so vast that it covers many properties that could be considered major characteristics of conviviality in their own right. One notable example is "Intuitive Operation", which means that the user can intuitively discover how to operate the tool without having to refer constantly to the users manual. Another is "Reliability," which means that the object should repeatedly prove to be effective, and should operate with few and non-catastrophic errors.

Another major convivial characteristic is Reparability, or the ease with which a tool can be repaired. Reparability could be considered part of Usability, to the extent that repair of the tool is one step in the overall cycle of its use.

Reparability is closely related to Durability, which refers to the length of the useful life of the tool. However, ease of repair is only one of the factors that increases a tool’s durability and lifespan, others being the quality of the materials and the general robustness of the tool.

There is much overlap between convivial characteristics and what has traditionally been called "Ergonomics". Ergonomic characteristics will notably tend to increase a tool’s usability.

Additional characteristics of convivial tools include those which serve to enhance the primary characteristics. An important secondary characteristic of convivial tools is simplicity. A simple tool will tend to be easy to use, easy to repair, and durable.

Another secondary convivial characteristic, related to simplicity, is robustness. A robust tool has high usability, since it continues to fonction under adverse conditions, and it has high reparability, since it is more resistant to the user’s tinkering.

A key secondary convivial characteristic, especially with respect to repairability, is what could be called "open access". This refers to the ease with which the user can reach and manipulate the tools innards. For a physical appliance, access means being able to open it up and dismount the inner parts. For software, easy access means being able to descend into the lower levels of the program and to tinker with it. Thus open source programs generally have more open access than hidden source programs, but only to the extent that the user can understand and actually manipulate the code.

Repairability may also be enhanced through design of standard interchangeable modules.
Modularity can thus be considered another secondary characteristic of certain convivial tools.

There is also much overlap between convivial characteristics and environmental characteristics. For example, reparability and durability are environmental characteristics, since increasing the tool’s life reduces consumption of resources for its replacement. However, the environmental characteristic of "recyclability" does not directly enhance the user’s independent efficiency. It does so only if the user specifically desires to recycle the tool at the end of its useful life. We will however assume that the typical user of convivial tools wants tools that are also environmentally and socially friendly.

A basic element which enters into Illich’s very definition of convivial tools is that they increase the user’s autonomy. We can thus consider the capacity to promote autonomy to be in itself a fundamental characteristic of convivial tools.

In today’s service economy, the level of after-sales service is a major criterion for the comparative evaluation of tools that are available as products on the market. Dependence on after-sales service might seem to decrease the user’s autonomy. However, given that services such as repair under warranty or on-line help are often necessary, higher service levels that provide full external support in fact increase the user’s feeling of personal control and autonomy.

Ivan Illich envisaged that convivial tools would enhance a sort of "graceful playfulness" in personal relations. This "graceful playfulness" is the Illich’s transposition of the Greek word "eutrapelia", which was one of Aristotle’s "social virtues". ("Eutrapelia" is sometimes translated as "wittiness".) Since the word "conviviality" refers to the entire range of characteristics of convivial tools, we will use the word "eutrapelia" to refer this specific characteristic of power to enhance personal relations.