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Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, p.29 (pdf):

A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others. People feel joy, as opposed to mere pleasure, to the extent that their activities are creative; while the growth of tools beyond a certain point increases regimentation, dependence, exploitation, and impotence.

Illich uses the word “tools” very broadly here: “rationally designed devices.” This includes everything from hammers to machines to health care systems. He defines conviviality as “individual freedom realized in personal interdependence.” A convivial tool, therefore, is a tool (broadly defined) that gives a person creative autonomy.

He contrasts this with industrial tools, which begin in service to a particular need but eventually capture the user and society itself. Think of cars. At first they vastly improved transportation. A hundred years later, we have traffic jams and car payments and car insurance and registration fees and BMV paperwork and the costs of maintenance and fuel. What began as a tool to serve humans has transformed into a tool served by humans.

Think now of computing devices and the internet. For those of us who remember life before them, their appearance was a revelation. Yet now we all have the experience of becoming servants to the tools. Modern technology is, in short, a monumental hassle. A hassle, furthermore, that we must endure if we are to participate in a tech-driven society. It is becoming increasingly difficult, for example, to live without a smartphone.

What if some part or another of our technology fails on a large scale, even for a brief time? How incapacitated would we be in such a situation? That would be a good measure of the degree to which our tools have become our masters.

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