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.

Convivial tools

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.

A change in perspective

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.