What to limit, and how and why

A common argument made by proponents of degrowth, supported by historical evidence, is that economic growth is ecologically unsustainable and entails an increasing inequitable distribution of resources. In Tools for degrowth? Ivan Illich’s critique of technology revisited, Silja Samerski discusses Ivan Illich’s (1926-2002) argument that limits to growth are needed not only for ecological or distributive justice, but for social freedom. Any limits must be politically decided, and applied not primarily to the economy, but to technology.

While growth is generally understood as an economic ideology to be addressed by restructuring the economy, Illich saw growth as technological. Beyond a certain tipping point, technology transcends from a tool humans use to satisfy their needs, to end in itself. This “end” is fulfilled by making humans “means” – shaping them to fit the technology. This perspective shapes Illich’s criticism of computing technologies, which contrasts those of many proponents of degrowth who consider open-source and open-access to be potential new commons.

Although there is a tendency for degrowth proponents to ignore or accept immaterial technologies (like schooling or healthcare systems) as necessary or benign, Illich centred these technologies in his critique of growth. He argued that there are technologies that are inherently destructive, regardless of who uses them and how. These “manipulating tools” replace people’s “native capacities”- to travel on foot, to learn, to care for one another, to communicate and to know. The car restructures the city in its image, restricting the (formerly free) movement of pedestrians. The school shapes students to reproduce the system as it is, and prevents students from shaping the school to meet their need to learn. Each human capacity is removed from the autonomy of the individual, professionalised and standardised.

Further, people are “disembodied” as they are integrated into systems, their self-perceptions and subjectivities manipulated to fit. The hospital defines health and disciplines bodies accordingly, and people relinquish their capacity to feel their own health within their bodies and decide what it means to be “healthy”. Cybernetics replace the diversity of face-to-face interaction with abstracted communication, with people as data within a pre-defined digital system. People outsource knowledge to computer systems, and so no longer know themselves and their surroundings directly from their senses. Computing technology does not represent the revival of the commons, but further encroachment on users’ freedom.

Limits to technological growth, then, are needed in defence of “the vernacular” – people’s existing capacity to meet their own needs. These capacities can be enhanced with tools, provided they deemed appropriate upon critical reflection, and are decided upon autonomously from the mind-altering technologies which shape people in their own image.

Read more (paywall/institutional access): Tools for degrowth? Ivan Illich’s critique of technology revisited, Silja Samerski, 2018

Abstract: “Based on the works of Ivan Illich, this article reformulates growth not as the result of a certain economic imperative or ideology, but as a question of technology – namely as a historically unique relation of humans to their instruments. This sheds new light on a key question of degrowth, namely what to limit, and how and why. First, it emphasizes not the ecological, but the social harms of growth, namely the paralyzing and disembodying effects of modern technologies, be they high speed trains, smartphones or health care services… Second, it argues that degrowth, if it does not want to degenerate into an alternative strategy with which to manage scarce resources, has to seek limits to all manipulative tools, be they digital technologies or social technologies. These limits, if they are to be meaningful, cannot be defined by experts or determined by ecological indices, but have to be rooted in the common will to defend a vernacular and convivial sphere against industrial and technological encroachment. Thirdly, based on Ivan Illich’s later work on the way contemporary technologies shape bodily experience, it calls for the cultivation of a technological ascesis, that is a critical distancing from the symbolic effects of mind-boggling tools such as the computer that increasingly shape self-perception and subjectivity…”