Ivan Illich


I was thinking, “Where do I start?”, and it occurred to me that a blog on pondering should start with the current pondering.

I’ve been thinking about Ivan lately, and how his small little book has helped shape so many of my ideas. “Tools of Conviviality” or perhaps “the Conviviality of Tools”? I should look that up if I quote that, but I don’t want to interrupt the flow.

He proposes the concept that all tools are extensions of the physical attributes of the human body. A hammer is a closed fist, a wrench is the combination of finger thumb. Of course, these extensions have upped the ante in terms of effectiveness. The hammer can hit much harder with no damage. The knife can cut far more effectively than our incisors. On the simple tools, the concept works very well. Unfortunately Mr. Illich died long before the iPhone was created so we don’t have his input on this and other more complicated electronic tools. Is RAM the same as our frontal lobes? Does a terabyte hard drive compare to cerebral cortex?

I still think the concept holds, even if the details get murky. The question for me is the isolation, or impedance between the tools, and the work they are doing. I can feel the effect of the hammer on the nail, I can even tell if I’ve missed the sweet spot to the extent that the nail has bent. I can also hear the pitch as the nail is driven deeper, telling me that all is good. The same with tightening a bolt or driving a screw. The feedback through the tool lets me know when I should stop. A torque wrench will also give a readout but the skilled mechanic will come close just by the feel.

I remember one of the first arcade games that took many of my quarters was a race car game, a Monte Carlo type race with lots of turns, short straight-a-ways, many crashes. It must have taken $40 to $60 dollars to learn the correct speed coming into the turn, and the successful acceleration out of the turn. Now I am thinking it didn’t take that long when I was learning how to drive in real life. The obvious difference is that the simple video game only provided one input channel, the visual. There was a sound channel but that was only the crash noise after the failure of the turn.

While actually in the car there are a multitude of channel inputs that are consistent and repeatable as learning continues. The visual is primary, and the games generally do a very good job of replicating this input. There is also gravity as your head, torso and seat is thrown to the outside curve of whatever turn you are attempting. Tighter turn, more force. This is excellent input. There is the sound of the tires as they travel through the turns, sometimes telegraphing to the steering wheel their slip and slide passage. Maybe even the smell of burned rubber adds to the collection. That’s a lot additional input that can come from the first few minutes in a real car. So, no wonder it takes so many quarters to master the video games.

So what happens when the technology becomes so complex, or dense, that the signals are only on one channel? I think this is where many people feel a distance, a disconnect. It takes a great deal of effort to find comfort in using the more complex tools.

Like most things there are two (or more) sides to this problem. The news is currently describing the use of Cruise missiles in war. I’m thinking this is a perfect example of the distance between the thought and the act. At one point in time we used our fists, feet and teeth while fighting. We progressed to extend to knives and clubs. This was still fairly personal. Then the longbow appeared and we have records of French knights decrying the impact of commoners with longbows, killing French nobleman at a distance. How ungallant!

There is a saying that God made man and Samuel Colt made all men equal.

Hmm, the biggest difference in modern weaponry is the distance between the thought and the action. Snipers hitting their targets miles away, bombers in WWII raining down armaments using bombsights that only vaguely look like buildings. Unmanned drones that project video images of the targets up close, but even further disconnected, almost like video games. Is it easier to take a human life through a monitor? The death is the same, but the manner of the taking is different.

Would I rather the taking be oldstyle- messy, bloody and personal? Or should it be cold, at a distance and clean?

A new thought…
Civilization might be described by tool use, and developed civilizations by the complexicity, or denseness of the tools. The downside is that we are farther from our humanity when our tools become so complex that it alters how we use the tools. We eat hamburgers but we not hunt. We use Cruise missiles but we will not…

Do tools describe civilization, and developed tools create uncivilized behavior?

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