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.

The Point of Technical Convergence

The following passage is taken from one of the last chapters of Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society, originally published in 1954.

However, one important fact has escaped the notice of the technicians, the phenomenon of technical convergence …. Our interest here is the convergence on man of a plurality, not of techniques, but of systems or complexes of techniques. The result is an operational totalitarianism; no longer is any part of man free and independent of these techniques …. It is impossible to determine, by considering any human technique in isolation, whether its human object remains intact or not. The problem can be solved only by using the human being as a criterion, only by looking at this point of convergence of technical systems.


Our highly specialized technicians will have a vast number of problems to hurdle before they are in a position to put together the pieces of the puzzle. The technical operations involved do not appear to fit well together, and only by means of a new technique of organization will it be possible to unite the different pieces into a whole. When this has finally been accomplished, however, human techniques will develop very fast. As yet unrecognized potentialities for influencing the individual will appear. At the moment such possibilities are only dimly discerned in the penumbra of totalitarian regimes still in their infancy. It should not be forgotten, of course, that while our technicians are trying to synthesize the various techniques theoretically, a synthetic unity already exists and man is its object.

I submit that we can read this prophetically and find the fulfillment of the “new technique of organization” that will unleash “unrecognized potentialities for influencing the individual” in digital technology, perhaps even seeing in the smartphone the symbol of technical convergence. A whole assemblage of political, economic, psychological, and social techniques find in this digital device a focal point upon which to converge on the human being.

The Magnificent Bribe

Lewis Mumford in “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics”:

Why has our age surrendered so easily to the controllers, the manipulators, the conditioners of an authoritarian technics? The answer to this question is both paradoxical and ironic. Present day technics differs from that of the overtly brutal, half-baked authoritarian systems of the past in one highly favorable particular: it has accepted the basic principle of democracy, that every member of society should have a share in its goods. By progressively fulfilling this part of the democratic promise, our system has achieved a hold over the whole community that threatens to wipe out every other vestige of democracy.

The bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe. Under the democratic-authoritarian social contract, each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus he may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education. But on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered, duly processed and fabricated, homogenized and equalized, in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires. Once one opts for the system no further choice remains. In a word, if one surrenders one’s life at source, authoritarian technics will give back as much of it as can be mechanically graded, quantitatively multiplied, collectively manipulated and magnified.

Survival in Justice


Reading Ivan Illich is an intellectually and morally challenging business. Below are two excerpts from Tools for Conviviality. I offer them to you for your consideration. I cannot say that I would endorse them without reservation. Nonetheless, they confront us with the uncomfortable possibility that the cure of our technological malaise will be more radical than most of us have wanted to believe and will require more than most of us are prepared to sacrifice.

These passages also remind us that the prospect of subjecting technology to serious moral critique amounts to a great deal more than intellectual parlor games or mere tinkering with the design of our digital tools. They remind us as well that when we finally come to the roots of our most serious problems, we will find wildly different conceptions of the good life and human flourishing in conflict with one another.

First, against the ideology of growth at all costs.

Our imaginations have been industrially deformed to conceive only what can be molded into an engineered system of social habits that fit the logic of large-scale production. We have almost lost the ability to frame in fancy a world in which sound and shared reasoning sets limits to everybody’s power to interfere with anybody’s equal power to shape the world […] Men with industrially distorted minds cannot grasp the rich texture of personal accomplishments within the range of modern though limited tools. There is no room in their imaginations for the qualitative change that the acceptance of a stable-state industry would mean; a society in which members are free from most of the multiple restraints of schedules and therapies now imposed for the sake of growing tools. Much less do most of our contemporaries experience the sober joy of life in this voluntary though relative poverty which lies within our grasp.

Second, what Illich considers will be the sacrifices required to move toward a more just society.

I argue that survival in justice is possible only at the cost of those sacrifices implicit in the adoption of a convivial mode of production and the universal renunciation of unlimited progeny, affluence, and power on the part of both individuals and groups. This price cannot be extorted by some despotic Leviathan, nor elicited by social engineering. People will rediscover the value of joyful sobriety and liberating austerity only if they relearn to depend on each other rather than on energy slaves. The price for a convivial society will be paid only as the result of a political process which reflects and promotes the society-wide inversion of present industrial consciousness. This political process will find its concrete expression not in some taboo, but in a series of temporary agreements on one or the other concrete limitation of means, constantly adjusted under the pressure of conflicting insights and interests.

As I’ve suggested before, it is often the case that “we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.”



Tip the Writer


Jacques Ellul on Technique As An Obstacle To Ethics

The following excerpts are taken from “The Search for Ethics In a Technicist Society” (1983) by Jacques Ellul. In this essay, Ellul considers the challenges posed to traditional morality in a society dominated by technique.

James Fowler on what Ellul meant by technique: “Ellul’s issue was not with technological machines but with a society necessarily caught up in efficient methodological techniques. Technology, then, is but an expression and by-product of the underlying reliance on technique, on the proceduralization whereby everything is organized and managed to function most efficiently, and directed toward the most expedient end of the highest productivity.

In Ellul’s view, “The ethical problem, that is human behavior, can only be considered in relation to this system, not in relation to some particular technical object or other.” “If technique is a milieu and a system, ” he adds, “the ethical problem can only be posed in terms of this global operation. Behavior and particular choices no longer have much significance. What is required is thus a global change in our habits or values, the rediscovery of either an existential ethics or a new ontology.”

Emphasis in boldface below is mine.

On the call to subordinate means to ends:

“It is quite right to say that technique is only made of means, it is an ensemble of means (We shall return to this later), but only with the qualification that these means obey their own laws and are no longer subordinated to ends. Besides, one must distinguish ideal ends (values, for example), goals (national, for example), and the objectives (immediate objectives: a researcher who tries to solve some particular problem). Science and technique develop according to objectives, rarely and accidentally in relation to more general goals, and never for ethical or spiritual ideals. There is no relation between the proclamation of values (justice, freedom, etc.) and the orientation of technical development. Those who are concerned with values (theologians, philosophers, etc.) have no influence on the specialists of technique and cannot require, for example, that some aspect of current research or other means should be abandoned for the sake of some value.

On the difficulty of determining who exactly must act to subordinate technique to moral ends:

To adopt one of these first two ethical orientations is to argue that it is human beings who must create a good use for technique or impose ends on it, but always neglecting to specify which human beings. Is the “who” not important? Is technique able to be mastered by just any passer-by, every worker, some ordinary person? Is this person the politician? The public at large? The intellectual and technician? Some collectivity? Humanity as a whole? For the most part politicians cannot grasp technique, and each specialist can understand an infinitesimal portion of the technical universe, just as each citizen only makes use of an infinitesimal piece of the technical apparatus. How could such a person possibly modify the whole? As for the collectivity or some class (if they exist as specific entities) they are wholly ignorant of the problem of technique as a system. Finally, what might be called “Councils of the Wise” […] have often been set up only to demonstrate their own importance, just as have international commissions and international treaties [….] Who is supposed to impose ends or get hold of the technical apparatus? No one knows.

On the compromised position from which we try think ethically about technique:

At the same time, one should not forget the fact that human beings are themselves already modified by the technical phenomenon. When infants are born, the environment in which they find themselves is technique, which is a “given.” Their whole education is oriented toward adaptation to the conditions of technique (learning how to cross streets at traffic lights) and their instruction is destined to prepare them for entrance into some technical employment. Human beings are psychologically modified by consumption, by technical work, by news, by television, by leisure activities (currently, the proliferation of computer games), etc., all of which are techniques. In other words, it must not be forgotten that it is this very humanity which has been pre-adapted to and modified by technique that is supposed to master and reorient technique. It is obvious that this will not be able to be done with any independence.

On the pressure to adapt to technique:

Finally, one other ethical orientation in regard to technique is that of adaptation. And this can be added to the entire ideology of facts: technique is the ultimate Fact. Humanity must adapt to facts. What prevents technique from operating better is the whole stock of ideologies, feelings, principles, beliefs, etc. that people continue to carry around and which are derived from traditional situations. It is necessary (and this is the ethical choice!) to liquidate all such holdovers, and to lead humanity to a perfect operational adaptation that will bring about the greatest possible benefit from the technique. Adaptation becomes a moral criterion.