What is a convivial tool?

Ivan Illich coined the term in his book Tools for conviviality in which he says

To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment; beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call “convivial.”

After many doubts, and against the advice of friends whom I respect, I have chosen “convivial” as a technical term to designate a modern society of responsibly limited tools.

I am aware that in English “convivial” now seeks the company of tipsy jollyness, which is distinct from that indicated by the OED and opposite to the austere meaning of modern “eutrapelia,” which I intend. By applying the term “convivial” to tools rather than to people, I hope to forestall confusion.

I came across the book quite by accident. In 1988, bored and disgusted by “corporate tech”, I quit my job at Microsoft and went to Europe. When I returned to North America I stayed with a Canadian friend, at his parents’ house. His mom had a copy. (I wonder why – I should ask her.) I read it, enraptured.

It forever changed my life. Since then I have not been able to see technology except through its lens. This made me a dour critic of technology; it prevented me from getting excited about things that excite others; it even, perhaps, prevented me from having a “career” in technology. I was (and am!) deeply, and almost unconsciously, philosophically opposed to most aspects and artifacts of technology.

I went apostate. 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 still true for me today. “Technology” is eating the world, and continues to ruin everything I care about.

After discovering that Forth is a convivial tool – and using it for a decade to make art (in collaboration with Trimpin) – I decided that making art was the only good use for technology. I have been building tools ever since. (But somehow I haven’t managed to make any art. Ouch.)