In his landmark 1973 book Tools for conviviality Ivan Illich mounted a compelling critique of industrial society. He claimed that we cannot have a society of authentic human relations unless the tools for production of the artifacts needed by that society are under the control of the people using them. Here is a quote to whet your appetite:
I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.
This fits nicely with the “mission” of Nimble Machines: liberation. Not necessarily, or simply, liberation from technology, but perhaps liberation through convivial technology. As much as I might like to be, I am not a Luddite; technology fascinates me. But I cannot stomach technologies whose production or consumption is inimical to personal freedom, expression, and relatedness.
The book talks about “conviviality” but also convivial tools. What does this mean? What makes a tool convivial (or not)?
A convivial tool can be bent entirely to your will, made your own, used creatively, and mastered.
A pen, pencil, or brush is convivial; a word processing program, less so.
A handsaw – or a bandsaw! – is convivial; an assembly line is not.
Anything you might describe as a black box is by its nature not convivial.
In the world of computing, a microcontroller is convivial; a desktop computer is not – it has too many secret and undocumented corners, and its complexity is too much for one person to come to grips with.
Software can be convivial, but size is important. A too-large system that exceeds the grasp of one person I would not consider convivial, but small systems that are well-documented and intended to be extended by their users – Lua, Tcl, and Forth are good examples – are convivial.
Convivial tools tend to require effort and study. They are not “easy” or “simple”. But their mastery pays dividends, and confers a kind of freedom.
Illich’s book is dense but well worth reading. It forever changed how I think about technology!
After reading it I went apostate – technologically speaking. I read lots of books, most of them written in 1973 (seriously!). Everything I read pointed to the real and sensous world: to food (ie, organic, grown from heirloom seed), to craft, to livable (walking) cities, to human scale. I rode my bicycle everywhere. I felt that technology was the enemy of everything I found myself caring about.
This is true for me today. “Technology” is eating the world, and continues to ruin many of the things I care about.
But convivial tools offer a way forward to a more humane, human-scale world.