From Ivan Ilich’s Tools for Conviviality (1973), a book that emerged out of conversations at The Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
For a hundred years we have tried to make machines work for men and to school men for life in their service. Now it turns out that machines do not “work” and that people cannot be schooled for a life at the service of machines. The hypothesis on which the experiment was built must now be discarded. The hypothesis was that machines can replace slaves. The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men. Neither a dictatorial proletariat nor a leisure mass can escape the dominion of constantly expanding industrial tools.
The crisis can be solved only if we learn to invert the present deep structure of tools; if we give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high, independent efficiency, thus simultaneously eliminating the need for either slaves or masters and enhancing each person’s range of freedom. People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them. They need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well-programmed energy slaves.
As the power of machines increases, the role of persons more and more decreases to that of mere consumers.
This world-wide crisis of world-wide institutions can lead to a new consciousness about the nature of tools and to majority action for their control. If tools are not controlled politically, they will be managed in a belated technocratic response to disaster. Freedom and dignity will continue to dissolve into an unprecedented enslavement of man to his tools.
Illich is among the older thinkers whose work on technology and society I think remains instructive and stimulating. These considerations seem especially relevant to our debates about automation and employment.
Illich was wide-ranging in his interests. Early in the life of this blog, I frequently cited In the Vineyard of the Text, his study of the evolution of writing technologies in the late medieval period.