Ivan Illich on Technology and Labor

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.

Recovering the Tech Critical Canon

Melvin Kranzberg was spotlighted in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend thanks to Christopher Mims. Kranzberg’s is not exactly a household name. He was a historian of technology who taught for many years at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 1985, he gave a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in which he outlined six laws or “truisms” about technology “deriving from a longtime immersion in the study of the development of technology and its interactions with sociocultural change.”

The first of these laws is the best known: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” You can read about the rest of the laws in this earlier post. They are not well-known outside of a relatively small circle of historians, philosophers, and critics specializing in the academic study of technology.

Mims, a journalist covering the tech industry, was recently introduced to the Kranzberg’s Laws, and to his credit he has now introduced Kranzberg’s Laws to many more people who, in all likelihood, would never have encountered Kranzberg’s very useful insights. In tweeting out the story, Mims acknowledged that he had never come across Kranzberg’s work despite covering the technology beat for over a decade.

I recount all of this as a way of explaining why I have recently decided to make a point of posting excerpts from what I’m calling the Tech Critical Canon*. I’m thinking of a long tradition of writing from a wide array of disciplines that has focused critical attention on the social and moral consequences of technology. The tradition includes historians, philosophers, sociologists, theologians, linguists, media theorists, economists, cultural critics, journalists, novelists, and many individuals whose interests and specializations truly defy disciplinary boundaries. In fact, this is what makes many of these older critics so interesting. They were eclectic and eccentric in their convictions, training, and life experiences. It was this eccentric eclecticism allowed them to see more clearly than most what was happening.

These individuals do not speak with one voice; their perspectives often differ and their evaluations are not easily synthesized; and, of course, they were often wrong. But their writing, even when it is decades old, remains valuable. It is abundantly clear, however, that it is virtually unknown. Within the last month or so, I’ve commented on how recent cries for serious thinking about the political and ethical consequences of technology ignores the work of this diverse assortment of scholars and writers who have been doing just that for more than a century.

I am especially interested in the work of older critics, critics whose work appeared in the early and mid-twentieth century. I find these critics especially useful precisely because of their distance from the present. As I’ve noted elsewhere, if we read only contemporary sources on tech, we would be unlikely to overcome our chief obstacle: our thinking is already shaped by the very phenomena we seek to understand. The older critics offer a fresh vantage point and effectively new perspectives. They begin with different assumptions and operate with forgotten norms. Moreover, their mistakes will not be ours. (My point here is not unlike that made by C.S. Lewis writing in defense of old books.)

Chiefly, their distance from us and their proximity to older configurations of culture and technology means that they can imagine modes of life and ways of being with technology that we can no longer experience or imagine when we rely only on the work of contemporary critics, much of which is, of course, essential. As Andrew Russell pointed out, Kranzberg helped foster the valuable work of scholars who continue to produce important work advancing our understanding of technology and its consequences.

I fully recognize that I may very well be guilty of a common disorder: thinking that what the world really needs more of is the very thing about which I happen to care and with which I have a measure of aptitude. I also realize that my scribblings here will not amount to even a blip on the cultural radar. Be that as it may.

I’ve already posted a couple of excerpts (here and here). I’ll continue to do so and group these posts under the tag Tech Critical Canon. I do not plan to offer much commentary in these posts. I think the excerpts will stand well on their own. I trust that they will help us think more deeply about technology and lead us toward understanding and wisdom. I hope, as well, that they will function as teasers that induce readers to read the sources for themselves. Indeed, that is more or less how I’ve always thought about what I do here anyway: connecting readers to the really important work on technology that they may not encounter otherwise.

Admittedly, I’m not exactly hopeful that the recent interest in the ethics of technology and the work of thinkers such as Melvin Kranzberg will persist or that it will translate into meaningful change in the way that we order our society and our lives. But who knows?

*I should clarify, of course, that I mean critical in the same sense that we speak of a film critic or an art critic. The term does not necessarily imply only negative evaluations. For more on my view of technology criticism see What Motivates the Critic of Technology?

Jacques Ellul On Adaptation of Human Beings to the Technical Milieu

Jacques Ellul coined the term Technique in an attempt to capture the true nature of contemporary Western society. Ellul was a French sociologist and critic of technology who was active throughout the mid to late twentieth century. He was a prolific writer but is best remembered as the author of The Technological Society. You can read an excellent introduction to his thought here.

Ellul defined Technique (la technique) as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” It was an expansive term meant to describe far more than what we ordinarily think of as technology, even when we use that term in the widest sense.

In a 1963 essay titled “The Technological Order,” Ellul referred to technique as “the new and specific milieu in which man is required to exist,” and he offered the six defining characteristics of this “new technical milieu”:

a. It is artificial;
b. It is autonomous with respect to values, ideas, and the state;
c. It is self-determining in a closed circle. Like nature, it is a closed organization which permits it to be self-determinative independently of all human intervention;
d. It grows according to a process which is causal but not directed to ends;
e. It is formed by an accumulation of means which have established primacy over ends;
f. All its parts are mutually implicated to such a degree that it is impossible to separate them or to settle any technical problem in isolation.

In the same essay, Ellul offers this dense elaboration of how Technique “comprises organizational and psychosociological techniques”:

It is useless to hope that the use of techniques of organization will succeed in compensating for the effects of techniques in general; or that the use of psycho-sociological techniques will assure mankind ascendancy over the technical phenomenon. In the former case we will doubtless succeed in averting certain technically induced crises, disorders, and serious social disequilibrations; but this will but confirm the fact that Technique constitutes a closed circle. In the latter case we will secure human psychic equilibrium in the technological milieu by avoiding the psychobiologic pathology resulting from the individual techniques taken singly and thereby attain a certain happiness. But these results will come about through the adaptation of human beings to the technical milieu. Psycho-sociological techniques result in the modification of men in order to render them happily subordinate to their new environment, and by no means imply any kind of human domination over Technique.”

That paragraph will bear re-reading and no small measure of unpacking, but here is the short version: Nudging is merely the calibration of the socio-biological machine into which we are being incorporated. Ditto life-hacking, mindfulness programs, and basically every app that offers to enhance your efficiency and productivity.

Ellul’s essay is included in Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Technology (1983), edited by Carl Mitcham and Robert Mackey.

Mumford: “Men had become mechanical before they perfected complicated machines”

From the opening section of Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934):

While people often call our period the “Machine Age,” very few have any perspective on modern technics or any clear notion as to its origins. Popular historians usually date the great transformation in modern industry from Watt’s supposed invention of the steam engine; and in the conventional economics textbook the application of automatic machinery to spinning and weaving is often treated as an equally critical turning point. But the fact is that in Western Europe the machine had been developing steadily for at least seven centuries before the dramatic changes that accompanied the “industrial revolution” took place. Men had become mechanical before they perfected complicated machines to express their new bent and interest; and the will-to-order had appeared once more in the monastery and the army and the counting-house before it finally manifested itself in the factory. Behind all the great material inventions of the last century and a half was not merely a long internal development of technics: there was also a change of mind. Before the industrial precesses could take hold on a great scale, a reorientation of wishes, habits, ideas, goals was necessary.

For reasons that I may outline in a later post, I plan to regularly post excerpts from notable works of older and often forgotten works of tech criticism. I’ll usually refrain from adding any commentary to these excerpts. My hope is that they will sharpen our thinking and yield useful insights. We’ll call these posts readings in the tech critical canon.