Destructive Scale

In Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich notes some of what had been concluded by 1970 through the research conducted at the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, which Illich directed. Research focused on the consequences of industrial production on society and early on it focused on what Illich called “educational devices.” Here is the conclusion Illich, who was no fan of the current mode of education, drew:

“Alternative devices for the production and marketing of mass education are technically more feasible and ethically less tolerable than compulsory graded schools. Such new educational arrangements are now on the verge of replacing traditional school systems in rich and in poor countries. They are potentially more effective in the conditioning of job-holders and consumers in an industrial economy. They are therefore more attractive for the management of present societies, more seductive for the people, and insidiously destructive of fundamental values.”

A little further on, Illich drew a more general principle: “When an enterprise grows beyond a certain point on this scale, it first frustrates the end for which it was originally designed, and then rapidly becomes a threat to society itself. These scales must be identified and the parameters of human endeavors within which human life remains viable must be explored.”

Failure to do so will have dire consequences:

“Society can be destroyed when further growth of mass production renders the milieu hostile, when it extinguishes the free use of the natural abilities of society’s members, when it isolates people from each other and locks them into a man-made shell, when it undermines the texture of community by promoting extreme social polarization and splintering specialization, or when cancerous acceleration enforces social change at a rate that rules out legal, cultural, and political precedents as formal guidelines to present behavior. Corporate endeavors which thus threaten society cannot be tolerated. At this point it becomes irrelevant whether an enterprise is nominally owned by individuals, corporations, or the state, because no form of management can make such fundamental destruction serve a social purpose.

This focus on scale , it seems to me, is one of Illich’s most valuable and enduring contribution to our understanding of technology and its relationship to society.

The emphasis in the last paragraph is mine. I draw attention to this claim because I believe it speaks to an often myopic focus on “political economy” (more here) that proceeds as if the intrinsic nature of the technology or system in question were irrelevant.

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