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Meta recently announced the upcoming launch of their decentralized Twitter competitor. Don’t worry: this isn’t my take on that news. It’s merely a pretense for talking about Ivan Illich, whose ideas might clarify recent conversations about both this news and the rise of other social networks meant to replace Twitter.

In Tools for Conviviality, Illich develops a theory of tools—which you may not know you needed but, trust me, you do. Illich defines “tools” as “rationally designed devices” and which therefore range from hammers to health care systems. Or, as in the case above, social networks.

A convivial society, says Illich, is one in which there is

autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and intercourse of persons with their environment. … [Conviviality is] individual freedom realized in personal interdependence.

Convivial tools, therefore, give people

the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.

The opposite of convivial tools are industrial tools, which end up exploiting their users. An industrial tool passes through two watersheds: first, it solves a defined problem. Second, it grows beyond its natural scale, alters values, and becomes an end in itself. For example, cars initially solve a transportation problem. Then, cities and roadways and employment models are build around them. We move from using cars as tools to solve a limited problem to serving the tool itself—which is, in fact, not a tool anymore but an organizing principle of our lives.

Convivial tools allow maximum freedom for their user’s creativity and independence, without infringing on the same freedom for others.

Tools foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user.

Of course there are several other issues that arise from this—who defines the limits of the tools, what does this mean for present industrial society—and Illich does discuss these issues. But for my present purposes, this is sufficient.

So are social networks convivial tools or industrial tools? Or does it depend on other factors? Is convivial and Meta industrial? What role does advertising and addiction play here? It’s probably not hard to guess my opinion but these are issues we need to start thinking about in new (or maybe old?) ways. Our present discussions don’t seem terribly fruitful and the extraordinarily rapid development of technology requires that we start thinking about the role and meaning of our tools.

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