Convivial Design for the American Breakdown

Peter JonesWu Wei

Human-Scale Tools for Change

While many authors recently warned of the consequences of an ideology of unfettered growth, including Ronald Wright, Jared Diamond, George Monbiot, and Thomas Homer-Dixon), philosopher/priest Ivan Illich warned us 40 years ago.  He foresaw a collapse of the post-industrial economy, which did not happen then. Illich proposed that autonomous, creative citizens take responsibility for creating the tools that might regenerate a civilization for real human needs and purposes. Perhaps both, breakdown and a creative civilization, are happening now.

As with the Club of Rome (1969) and their Limits to Growth (1972), Ivan Illich was right – but at the wrong time.  Those who remember the 1970’s may recall that alternative publications at the time (I have all the old Co-Evolution Quarterlies) treated the mid-70’s as if the apocalypse was happening then. Perhaps it always seems that way. As Dayton’s (now Austin’s) Troy Campbell sang on 2004’s American Breakdown, The World Keeps on Ending – every generation reinvents their desire the end the problems they inherited before the problems end the generation. Yet this time there is something different, something truly timely in Illich’s Convivial Tools notion.

I can only conjecture on how the breakdown of industrial society will ultimately become a critical issue. But I can make rather firm statements about the qualifications for providing guidance within the coming crisis. I believe that growth will grind to a halt. The total collapse of the industrial monopoly on production will be the result of synergy in the failure of the multiple systems that fed its expansion. This expansion is maintained by the illusion that careful systems engineering can stabilize and harmonize present growth, while in fact it pushes all institutions simultaneously toward their second watershed. Almost overnight people will lose confidence not only in the major institutions but also in the miracle prescriptions of the would-be crisis managers. The ability of present institutions to define values such as education, health, welfare, transportation, or news will suddenly be extinguished because it will be recognized as an illusion.

Ivan Illich  (1973)  Tools for Conviviality

John Thackara revived a conversation for Tools with brio at the CHI 2004 conference in Vienna. With Bill Buxton, they presented an unscheduled dialogue they called “A Convivial Conversation” to intrigued conference participants. As I recall they debated their fairly polar perspectives on the possibilities and consequences of ubiquitous, cheap flat screen display panels in the public sphere. They both made convincing cases. Thackara’s is the case that would be expensive to ignore, if he and Illich turned out to be “more right.”

What Happened

Even if you cannot recall (and I can’t), it is clear that in 1973 few – if any – individuals were prepared to make the call that IT would become the great engine for new growth in the next decade. Society was not even yet mourning the loss of manufacturing and the blue-collar middle class the declined with it, because that had not happened yet. Even if Illich did not foresee the forestalling of the American breakdown granted us by 25 years of IT-fueled growth, what Ivan got right was that constant, increasing growth largely serving a managing elite was unsustainable. Crashable, and in a big way.

What economists, sociologists, and visionary editors (like Stewart Brand) also missed was the possibility that long waves of growth and destruction have their own cycles. Although both Kondratieff (1925) and Strauss and Howe’s Fourth Turning called the collapse for soon after the millennium, and not in the 70’s, most people missed those memos, as they were making other plans. Although long wave patterns are not provable hypotheses, they are empirically supported by the evidence they refer to in their models. While all models are biased, the biases that you accept make a difference in the real world.

The 1970’s saw the creative destruction of the first industrial economy. But it was a preview of the larger economic changes that could occur when the IT revolution completed its cycle of automating efficiencies, first by replacing rote work and then destroying administrative employment. Take a look at the figure on the Kondratieff page. We are living in that end phase of the growth cycle right now. We don’t know what’s next, and you’re living in happy times if you believe the Kurzweil post-human Singularity will somehow save us. You should really disbelieve anyone who says they know what happens next.

What’s Happening Now

You also don’t have to believe James Howard Kunstler’s take, that we should learn to live off the land again. Along with systems theory, back-to-the-earth was a major theme in Brand’s old Co-Evolution Quarterlies.  Stewart Brand himself shrugged off the possibility of re-ruralization for the new millennium in a recent NPR interview, and he appears to now be on the side of the “bright greens,” if not the Singularity movement. You don’t have to believe President Obama either, that recovery is imminent. (What are we recovering to?) Just observe for yourself, the evidence is available.

We may be in a services economy that generates value from IT-enabled constellations. But services have not yet generated the sustainable employment necessary to create and hold quality of life and cultural growth. Between these historical shifts, the leisure class we were promised 100 years ago never really got off the ground. The smartest among us today are also the hardest working people I know. Leisure and culture are hard won, perhaps.

Why a Convivial Response?

What does a convivial world even look like?  Do we have any good examples? Copenhagen? Willits, California? Toronto?

Let’s return to what Illich called the tools for conviviality, a process of human-scale cultural design. This means for us to “invert the present deep structure of tools” in order to “give people tools that guarantee their right to work with independent efficiency.”

I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. …  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.

Liz Sanders of Make Tools (former Sonic Rim, Fitch) represented Illichian design thinking to an IDSA conference in Cincinnati (also around 2004). She founded the new design firm on a convivial concept: that users in any service have the autonomy and desire to create their own concepts to express needs and desires for their world. She calls this generative design, a radically co-creative participatory design approach. Make Tools has people “making tools: or expressive projections of their wants, as a means for producers to create new tools in turn.

As designers and innovators, we are social tool producers. What Illich points to is that, while we may find our tools liberating or enhancing of our own autonomy, we  may not foresee whether we serve any long-term social goals. When we serve our clients, are we contributing to more of the same? Where do we, as design “thinkers” grasp the reigns of ethical vision sufficient to effect, not abstract “change,” but just the conversations that change people’s minds? Do we even have the convivial tools of deliberative communication?

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. I use the term “tool” broadly enough to include not only simple hardware such as drills, pots, syringes, brooms, building elements, or motors, and not just large machines like cars or power stations; I also include among tools productive institutions such as factories that produce tangible commodities like corn flakes or electric current, and productive systems for intangible such as those which produce “education,” “health,” “knowledge,” or “decisions.”  School curricula or marriage laws are no less purposely shaped social devices than road networks.

What are tools for scaling conviviality? We need tools for dialogue and making sense together. We need tools that create a culture conducive to communication and dialogue. We need tools we can share – literally, like Philadelphia’s Tool Library.

Let’s look at America. How do we save our neighborhoods from decline, enhance local transportation, bring local farming and food into small towns and cities? How do we use online tools effectively to promote real democratic change? How do we recover election integrity? How might we re-envision school systems and universities? Money and banks? Journalism and news? All of these are questions of conviviality. They all require people work together across ideologies and boundaries, intervene, document their work, make serious decisions, and propose alternatives to others in the community.