7 Historical Roots of Convivial Philosophy

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A Short History of the Criticism of Industrial Technology up to Illich

In the mid-1970s Ivan Illich presented his idea of "convivial tools" as an alternative to the system of "industrial tools," which he criticised. The principal roots of the ideas of "convivial tools" are thus to be found in the history of the criticism of industrial technology.

The Dispute between Voltaire and Rousseau concerning Progress

The modern criticism of industrial technology first emerged along with industrial technology itself, during the "industrial revolution" of the first half of the nineteenth century. However, the general framework for the debate was set nearly a century earlier, in the divisions that sprang up between the philosophers of the French Enlightenment.

Most of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Diderot, held that the development of civilisation and knowledge would inevitably bring social progress. Opposing this view, Jean-Jacques Rousseau held on the contrary that the progress of civilisation, in separating city dwellers from nature, degraded their well-being and corrupted their morals [1]. In claiming that the "noble savage" had better morals and sounder pleasures than corrupt city dwellers, Rousseau initiated the view that social reform should aim to release and to direct the "natural" inclinations of individuals. More generally, the dispute between Voltaire and Rousseau set the pattern for subsequent conflicts between those who advocate and believe in social and technological progress, and those who warn about the negative consequences of such "progress."

Nineteenth Century Critiques of the Industrial Revolution

The subsequent advance of industrialisation provoked opposition by craft workers whose mode of life it destroyed, such as the Luddites who smashed weaving machines in England, or the Canuts who opposed similar resistance in Lyon. While it was universally recognised that such opposition to technical progress was futile, the widespread social ravages of industrialization were commented upon by many contemporaries. The sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his "On the social division of labour," cites several early nineteenth-century observers, such as Jean-Baptiste Say who observed that "the worker who during his whole career uses only a file and hammer ... degrades the dignity of his nature," and de Toqueville who wrote: "As the principle of the division of labour is applied more and more completely, production progresses, but the producer regresses." [2]

Marxist theory takes from Hegel the Enlightenment belief in continual social progress, and unconditionally supports industrialisation as the major vector of economic progress. Thus the soviet regimes of the twentieth century promoted unbridled industrialisation, at the price of ecological devastation. However, the Marxist theory of alienation can be interpreted as a criticism of industrialisation. According to the Marxist analysis, the worker in the industrial factory produces mechanically an object which is completely defined by someone else, so that the product contains nothing of the worker’s own creativity, and the finished product is experienced as something "alien." [3] By extension, the entire society and its component parts, including notably the media, are produced in a similar manner, and are thus experienced as something that is alienated from the producers.

It is also interesting to note that while Marxism generally adopted Voltaire’s belief in social and technical progress, the marxist theory of "primitive communism" echoed Rousseau’s "noble savage," and the proletarian revolution was envisaged as a utopia which would release the "natural" capabilities of the working class. In practice, however, marxist communism created an industrial totalitarianism, as summed up in Lenin’s formula: "communism is the soviets plus electrification."

In the middle of the nineteenth century, another major critic of the spirit of the industrial revolution was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau, who advocated simplicity above all other values, advised his fellows to "make riches the means and not the ends of existence." He foresaw that the development of industrial society would foster inequality of competencies, as shown in the following quote: "Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts ’All aboard!’ when the smoke has blown away and the vapour condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over - and it will be called, and will be, ’a melancholy accident’." [4]

Throughout the nineteenth century, however, the overwhelming majority of observers accepted the postulate that technological and industrial development was a good thing in itself. The main disputes centred on the question of how to distribute the newly-produced wealth.

Disillusion with Western Civilisation after the First World War

It was only following the experience of the First World War, with the horrible carnage of trench warfare, and abuses such as the use of mustard gas, that serious questions were first raised about the potential misuse of technology, and about western civilisation in general.

These doubts about western civilisation gave rise in the 1920s to artistic protest movements such as Dada and Surrealism. However, these artistic movements remained marginal during the crisis of the great Depression. The decade of the 1930s was dominated by the conflict between competing responses to the world economic crisis: soviet communism in Russia, fascism in Germany, Keynesian economics in the United States.

During the 1930s a group of leftist scholars at the University of Frankfort in Germany (the "Frankfurt School") began asking how Western civilisation, with its roots in humanistic culture and the Enlightenment, could have given rise to German fascism. The conclusions of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno were only published after the second world war, in "Dialectic of Enlightenment." [5] They proposed that Enlightenment thought contained the seeds of its own self-destruction, in the form of a split between human subjectivity and natural forces, the former dominating the latter, to the point of finally turning against itself. The Frankfort School thus formulated an explicit critique of scientific rationality, which in being raised to the status of myth, becomes irrational.

Doubts about modern society were expressed with more direct reference to technical development by Lewis Mumford, an American architectural critic and historian of science. In "Technics and Civilization" (1934) Mumford introduced the distinction between Polytechnic, which enlists many different modes of technology, thereby providing a complex framework for solving human problems, and Monotechnic, which is based on a single mode of technology, thereby obliging humanity to follow that single technology’s own oppressive trajectory. Mumford for example saw America’s transportation networks as being monotechnic in their over-reliance on automobile transportation, neglecting other transport modes such walking, bicycling and public transit, and causing thousands of maimed and dead each year as a result of automobile accidents. [6]

A similar critique of modern technology was provided by Swiss architect and historian Sigfried Giedion. While the Second World War raged in Europe, Giedion was calmly searching through the American patent archives, charting the anonymous history of the age of mechanical invention. This research lead finally to the publication in 1947 of "Mechanization Takes Command," which examines the intrusion of mechanization into such diverse realms as locks and keys, bread baking, slaughterhouses, furniture, kitchen appliances and bathing. Giedion showed how the mechanisation of modern life was accompanied by, and in fact required, an evolution of public taste and notions of comfort. For example, the replacement of traditional black bread by less nutritious, industrially-produced white bread required prior public acceptance of the idea that white bread is more "refined" and hence superior. [7]

The Horrors of the Second World War are followed by the Consumer Society of the Fifties

At the end of the Second World War the dangers of technological development were strikingly demonstrated by the Nazi extermination camps and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It was in this context that Jacques Ellul published in 1953 "The Technological Society" (which was not published in English until 1964). Ellul expanded the notion of "techniques" to cover all procedures for social and administrative management, including the collection and use of statistics, the development of bureaucratic organisations, and the governmental regulation of private life through the mobilisation of social workers. Ellul’s radical conclusion was that the interrelated system of techniques takes on a life and logic of its own, such that it is the techniques themselves that determine human decisions, rather than the contrary. This conclusion he summed up as follows: "efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity." The bureaucratic system thus tends to impose whatever solutions are perceived to be the most efficient, regardless of any other considerations, such as morality, human well-being or social justice. [8]

Meanwhile, in the post-war period, Keynesian macro-economic principles, coupled with the exponential development of new energy sources (petroleum and natural gas), lead to the emergence of full-blown consumer society. In the consumerist euphoria of the 1950s dissident voices were rare. The Beat writers formed the only visible group that rejected consumerism and advocated a simpler way of living, with alternative cultural values.

While American society in the fifties was as a whole characterized by conformism, however, scholars working quietly in academia proposed a more critical analysis of the consumerist malaise. In "White Collar: The American Middle Classes" (1951), the sociologist C. Wright Mills contended that bureaucracies had overwhelmed the new class of city workers, depriving them of all independent thought and turning them into cheerful robots, paid a decent salary, but alienated from the world because of their inability to affect or change it. In "The Power Elite" (1956) Mills called attention to the interlaced interests of the leaders of the military, corporate, and political elements of society, suggesting that the ordinary citizen was a relatively powerless subject of manipulation by those entities. [9]

At the end of the decade, in "The Waste Makers" (1960), cultural critic Vance Packard denounced "the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals." Packard notably analyzed Planned Obsolescence, a concept first popularized by the American industrial designer Brooks Stevens. Stevens used the phrase "Planned Obsolescence" as the title a talk that he gave at an advertising conference in Minneapolis in 1954, and it thereafter became his catchphrase. Stevens defined planned obsolescence as: "Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." Vance Packard’s critique divided Planned Obsolescence into two sub-categories: obsolescence of function and obsolescence of desirability, the first being useful, and the second being unnecessary. According to Packard, marketers artificially create "obsolescence of desirability," also called "psychological obsolescence," in order to wear a product out in the owner’s mind through changes in "styling," when no other meaningful design contribution can be made to change the product. [10]

Towards the end of the 1950s there also emerged wider movements of dissidence. In Britain the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament contested the claims of the prevailing technocratic elites, who used abstract arguments about geopolitics to justify putting all humanity at the risk of nuclear annihilation. In the United State the Civil Rights movement, by drawing large numbers of citizens into non-violent protest against racial discrimination, opened the way to the turbulence of the 1960s.

Counter-Culture and Environment in the Sixties

During the 1960s the criticism of industrial technology, previously restricted to a tiny minority, emerged as a major social tendency, in the context of the development of environmental consciousness, hippy counter-culture, and the anti-war movement.

The harmful environmental effects of uncontrolled use of pesticides were denounced as early as 1962 by Rachel Carson in "Silent Spring", the publication of which can be considered as the founding act of modern environmentalism. It could be noted however that "Our Synthetic Environment" by Lewis Herber (a pseudonym of the anarchist Murray Bookchin), describing a broad range of environmental ills, was published six months before Silent Spring, but received little attention because of the author’s political radicalism. [11]

In 1963 appeared the little book "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth" by R. Buckminster Fuller, an American inventor best-known for having developed the geodesic dome. Fuller was an early advocate of the type of holistic thinking that was to characterise the emerging environmental movement. He wrote: "society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking. This means that the potentially-integratable techno-economic advantages accruing to society from the myriad specializations are not comprehended integratively and are therefore not realized, or they are realized only in negative ways, in new weaponry or the industrial support only of warfaring." [12]

The hippy movement which emerged in San Francisco in the mid-sixties was impregnated from the start with concerns for "natural lifestyle", "communal living" and "holistic thinking". Not surprisingly, the hippy movement integrated Buckminster Fuller into its Pantheon of role-models, alongside the Buddha, Native Americans, and psychedelic rock stars. The hippy movement spawned a migration to communal farms, to get "back to the land."

Also in the mid-sixties, a development economist named E. F. Schumacher began promoting what he called "Appropriate Technology". In a 1965 article on "Social and Economic Problems calling for the Development of Intermediate Technology", Schumacher stated that in developing countries: "an Intermediate Technology would be immensely more productive than the indigenous technology (which is often in a condition of decay), but it would also be immensely cheaper than the sophisticated, highly capital-intensive technology of modern industry." Schumacher lists the advantages of intermediate technology as follows: "The equipment would be fairly simple and therefore understandable, suitable for maintenance and repair on the spot. Simple equipment is normally far less dependent on raw materials of great purity or exact specifications, and much more adaptable to market fluctuation than highly sophisticated equipment. Men are more easily trained; supervision, control and organisation are simpler; and there is far less vulnerability to unforeseen difficulties." This article later appeared in Schumacher’s celebrated book "Small is Beautiful" [13], which was not published until 1973, the same year as Illich’s "Tools for Conviviality".

In 1967 appeared Lewis Mumford’s "The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development," in which he deepened his earlier critique of modern technology. Mumford observed that the industrial production of consumer products relies on mechanisms such as consumer credit, built-in fragility, and superficial "fashion" changes, to ensure constant production and replacement of products. This goal of rapid product replacement works against technical perfection, product durability, social efficiency, and overall human satisfaction. Mumford wrote: "Without constant enticement by advertising, production would slow down and level off to normal replacement demand. Otherwise many products could reach a plateau of efficient design which would call for only minimal changes from year to year."

Also during the sixties, the Vietnam war provided direct evidence of the short-sightedness of the ruling technocratic elites, and demonstrated that peasants dressed in "pyjamas" and riding bicycles could overcome an army that was using the most sophisticated technical arsenal available. The turning point of the Vietnam war is generally considered to be the spring of 1968, when the guerrilla "Tet offensive" showed that despite all its fire-power, the American army was in fact losing the war on the ground.

In 1968 appeared the first "Whole Earth Catalog", with outsize pages measuring 11x14 inches (28x36 cm), whose stated purpose was to provide "access to tools". The Whole Earth Catalog brought together many of the themes that had developed throughout 1960s, such as natural lifestyle, counterculture, ecology and the importance of looking at the big picture. The Catalog’s principal creator was Stewart Brand, who in early 1966 had organised one of the first psychedelic concerts in San Francisco (the three-day Trips Festival), and later that year distributed buttons that read, "Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?" A NASA snapshot of the Earth seen from space traditionally adorned the cover of each edition of the Catalog. [14]

The 1968 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog began with the following statement of Purpose: "We are as gods and might as well get used to it. So far, remotely done power and glory - as via government, big business, formal education, church - has succeeded to the point where gross obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing - power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog."

The 1968 edition then opened with the dedication: "The insights of Buckminster Fuller are what initiated this catalog," which was followed by several pages of excerpts from Buckminster Fuller’s books.

Also in 1968 appeared Paul R. Ehrlich’s "The Population Bomb." Ehrlich predicted that world population would keep growing at an exponential rate while agricultural production would reach its limits, and that mass famine would soon result unless radical action were taken to limit the population growth. (In the nineteenth century Thomas Malthus likewise suggested that population tends to increase exponentially while agricultural production has fixed limits, leading to inevitable shortages.) While Ehrlich’s predictions of immediate catastrophe failed to materialise, the book helped promote consciousness of the earth as a finite system. [15]

The Early Seventies up to the Publication of "Tools for Conviviality"

The early seventies saw a continuation of the environmental and counter-cultural developments that had begun in the sixties. At the same time, however, there was a rapid burst of the utopian bubble and a return to "business as usual." After the hippy apotheosis of the Woodstock festival in late 1969, for example, 1970 was a year of disillusionment: the media focused on the Charles Manson murder trial, National Guardsmen shot and killed anti-war demonstrators at Kent State, the student organisation SDS evolved into the "Weather Underground," and Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix died of drug overdoses (followed by Jim Morrison in 1971). The overall cultural shift away from the hippy values of the sixties was consummated in the mid-seventies by the emergence of punk as the new youth sub-culture.

As often happens, the theoretical development of the ideas of the preceding period continued, out of phase with the overall cultural trends. The formal expression of sixties counter-cultural thought, carried forward by momentum, reached its highest stage when the sixties bubble had already burst.

Thus in 1971 Ivan Illich published his best-known work, "Deschooling Society". This book presents a radical critique of the existing institutional system of education, and more generally a critique of the overall "institutionalisation" of industrial society. The book also introduces the theme of convivial technology: "We need research on the possible use of technology to create institutions which serve personal, creative and autonomous interaction and the emergence of values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats." The chapter on "Learning Webs" suggests that computers could be used to connect people having similar interests. This example illustrates the extent to which Illich’s conceptual framework is already in tune with the coming internet revolution. [16]

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." [17]

In the following year was published the "Last Whole Earth Catalog", which was the culminating point of the development of the original Whole Earth Catalog. Nearly an inch thick, the 1972 catalog won the National Book Award. By this time Brand and colleagues had decided that the earlier Catalogs had placed too much emphasis on individualism, under the influence of Fuller’s anthropocentric viewpoint. The Last Catalog was instead dedicated to Gregory Bateson, whose book "Towards an Ecology of Mind" was felt to better reflect the Catalog’s orientation towards community and ecology. [18]

In 1972 the book "The Limits to Growth" was published by an MIT team working for Dr. Dennis Meadows, under the auspices of the Club of Rome. The MIT team built an elaborate computer model of the "world system," including interrelationships between population, economic development, resource consumption and environmental factors. Using the model to carry out simulations of the future, the team concluded that continued exponential economic growth would lead to a catastrophic collapse, unless smooth transition could be made to a "state of global equilibrium." They also suggested that technological solutions would be incapable of avoiding the collapse, in part because technology may produce harmful side-effects, and in part because some problems have no technical solutions. The "Limits to Growth" thus expanded on Erlich’s earlier warnings about exponential growth, but the catastrophes the team predicted have no more come about than Erlich’s. It could be noted however that they wrote: "The exact timing of these events is not meaningful, given the great aggregation and many uncertainties in the model. It is significant, however, that growth is stopped well before the year 2100." [19] So the collapse may still be coming.

The dependence of the industrial system on the consumption of fossil resources was highlighted shortly thereafter in 1973 by the First Oil Crisis.

In 1973 were published both Schumacher’s "Small is Beautiful", and Illich’s "Tools for Conviviality," which are often cited together as companion books. Schumacher promoted "appropriate technology" as a solution to problems in developing countries, while Illich promoted "convivial tools" as a solution to problems in developed countries. Each formulated a positive approach to countering the industrial leviathan, through the development of technologies and systems that they called "small," "appropriate" and "convivial."

[1Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men" (1754)

[2Emile Durkheim, "The Division of Labor in Society" (1893)

[4Henry David Thoreau, "Walden; or Life in the Woods" (1854)

[5Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, "Dialectic of Enlightenment" (1947)

[6Lewis Mumford, "Technics and Civilization" (1934)

[7Sigfried Giedion, "Mechanization Takes Command" (1947)

[8Jacques Ellul, "The Technological Society" (1953)


[11Rachel Carson, "Silent Spring" (1962)

[12F. Buckminster Fuller, "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth" (1963)

[13E.F. Schumacher, "Small is Beautiful" (1973)

[15Paul R. Ehrlich, "The Population Bomb" (1968)

[16Ivan Illich, "Deschooling Society" (1971)

[17Murray Bookchin, "Post-Scarcity Anarchism" (1971)

[18Portola Institute, "The Last Whole Earth Catalog" (1972)

[19Dennis L. Meadows et al., "The Limits to Growth" (1972)