At the time of writing this, I have owned the same smartphone for just over seven years. It is a good phone, but at this point its battery life is considerably diminished from when it was new. While this phone is light-years more advanced than the phone I carried in the 2000s, it is much more difficult to replace the battery. With my 2000s phone, I could simply walk into a store, purchase a new battery, and pop it in myself.
Today’s smartphones make it much more difficult to change the battery myself. You likely have to bring the phone in to the company you bought it from. For many, it is more convenient to just get a new phone.
There are now infinitely more possibilities with what we can do with our phones. We can stream videos, check social media, and even edit websites from our phones—none of which we could do before smartphones. We can order food and transportation, check on prescriptions, and feel like we are exerting control over many aspects of our lives.
On the other hand, we have less control over the actual phone itself. If a component breaks, we could void our warranties trying to repair the component. The phone is difficult even to open. And if the phone gets too out-of-date and does not update its software, then the apps we use—and perhaps even base much of our lives around—will not work.
I chose the term ‘conviviality’ to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intended 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 the 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.” (Ivan Illich)
Ivan Illich developed the term ‘conviviality’. Conviviality is opposed to a society where we become dependent on complex technologies; that is, technologies and systems that arguably control us (or impel us to consume more) rather than us being in control.
Convivial tools are tools that can be easily understood and controlled by most people. Most people understand what a bicycle is, how to use a bicycle, and, with some training, could repair a bicycle. Fewer people understand how a maglev train works, and only a subset of those people could operate and repair such a train. If that train were our main or only form of transport, then a breakdown of that train might leave us unable to complete daily tasks.
Why does conviviality matter?
Conviviality matters because technological understanding creates power. If society becomes dependent on smartphones and maglev trains, then we also become dependent on those who can operate and repair those technologies. Additionally, those entities likely have it in their interest to ensure that we subscribe to or continue buying those technologies. If we depend on those technologies for daily life, then we are surrendering some control.
There are certainly cases where some technologies should be left to the experts and ordinary people are probably not the best to be in control. Specialized surgery is a good example. Most people do want a well trained and practiced neurosurgeon when they require brain surgery.
What does conviviality mean for Community-Led Universal Basic Services?
Brain surgery aside, do our food production systems absolutely need the most advanced technologies? While our agricultural system in this country is highly mechanized and produces prodigious amount of food each year, it does so at great expense to the environment and it does not offer many decent jobs in non-specialized agriculture.
If a large-scale farmer in the Midwest felt like opening their farm to give local people decent agriculture jobs, that farmer might have a difficult time converting such a specialized, technology-dependent operation into one that could be understood by most people. Agricultural mechanization has made farming inaccessible to most people.
The Amish provide illustrative examples of convivial farming. The Amish do not use modern agricultural technologies to farm; rather, they choose their technologies carefully, with many relying on animals to plow and fertilize their fields, while avoiding the use of pesticides. Farm plots are smaller and typically worked by the family living on the plot. Aside from the Amish, community farms in suburban New England also offer examples of convivially worked land.
For communities to provide services locally to all members, we need to have more participation. However, such participation would only be possible with convivial technologies. It is easier to volunteer when you can understand the technology you need to use. Most people can learn to pull carrots by hand; it would be more difficult to teach them to operate a combine harvester. Most people, working in a team, can hammer and put up house structures. These communal, labor-based methods can help to bring people together and restore a sense of community.
Communities should be able to decide which technologies they want to create, adapt, and adopt. There can be deliberative processes to deciding what technologies to use and share, such as through makerspaces. These processes can help keep technologies accessible to communities and less vulnerable to industrial and financial incentives that demand continued purchasing.
To be clear, communities do not have to be anti-technology; it can be perfectly reasonable to deem smartphones and apps as essential. However, communities should consider the implications of those technologies and the power dynamics of choosing such technologies and how technological dependence can be avoided.
If we want people to participate in community work to provide basic services, how can we create jobs that are understandable and can be picked up with minimal training? How can we break the control that ever-advancing, profit-driven technology has on many of our basic needs?