Why the Landline Telephone Was the Perfect Tool

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Rogue philosopher Ivan Illich's ideas and what they mean for the Internet age

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Ivan Illich would have approved of the Internet.

Born in Vienna between the two wars, the public intellectual and radical priest Ivan Illich had by his mid-30s set out to rethink the world. In 1961, having arrived in Mexico by way of New York City and Puerto Rico, he started the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) learning center in Cuernavaca, an unlikely cross between a language school for missionaries, a free school, and a radical think tank, where he gathered thinkers and resources to conduct research on creating a world that empowered the oppressed and fostered justice.

Illich's achievement was a reframing of human relationships to systems and society, in everyday, accessible language. He advocated for the reintegration of community decisionmaking and personal autonomy into all the systems that had become oppressive: school, work, law, religion, technology, medicine, economics. His ideas were influential for 1970s technologists and the appropriate technology movement -- can they be useful today?

In 1971, Illich published what is still his most famous book, Deschooling Society. He argued that the commodification and specialization of learning had created a harmful education system that had become an end in itself. In other words, "the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school." For Illich, language often pointed to how toxic ideas had poisoned the ways we relate to each other. "I want to learn," he said, had been transmuted by industrial capitalism into "I want to get an education," transforming a basic human need for learning into something transactional and coercive. He proposed a restructuring of schooling, replacing the manipulative system of qualifications with self-determined, community-supported, hands-on learning. One of his suggestions was for "learning webs," where a computer could help match up learners and those who had knowledge to share. This skillshare model was popular in many radical communities.

With Tools for Conviviality (1973), Illich extended his analysis of education to a broader critique of the technologies of Western capitalism. The major inflection point in the history of technology, he asserts, is when, in the life of each tool or system, the means overtake the ends. "Tools can rule men sooner than they expect; the plow makes man the lord of the garden but also the refugee from the dust bowl." Often this effect is accompanied by the rise in power of a managerial class of experts; Illich saw technocracy as a step toward fascism. Tools for Conviviality points out the ways in which a helpful tool can evolve into a destructive one, and offers suggestions for how communities can escape the trap.

So what makes a tool "convivial?" For Illich, "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." That is, convivial technologies are accessible, flexible, and noncoercive. Many tools are neutral, but some promote conviviality and some choke it off. Hand tools, for Illich, are neutral. Illich offers the telephone as an example of a tool that is "structurally convivial" (remember, this is in the days of the ubiquitous public pay phone): anyone who can afford a coin can use it to say whatever they want. "The telephone lets anybody say what he wants to the person of his choice; he can conduct business, express love, or pick a quarrel. It is impossible for bureaucrats to define what people say to each other on the phone, even though they can interfere with -- or protect -- the privacy of their exchange."

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Suzanne Fischer is a historian of science and technology. She serves as curator of technology at The Henry Ford.

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