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Ivan Illich on the myth of limits

I’m going to be thinking about this section from the (superb) Convivial Society for the rest of the day:

Ivan Illich, whose work has played an important role in shaping my own thinking about technology, was not one for measured critiques or timid incrementalism. He targeted not only the usual culprits in his critique of industrial society, he even went after institutions most of us assume to be the best of what the modern world has to offer: schools and the medical profession. Illich also challenged one of the key myths animating the development and adoption of modern technology: the myth of limitlessness. I call it a myth to suggest not simply that there is something untrue about it, but also to signal its cultural power. Our myths, whatever their status as truth claims, order our experience and sustain our values.

According to the terms of this myth, limits are generally understood to be constraints and impediments. Happiness, progress, and satisfaction always lie in disregarding or overcoming limits, be they physical, natural, cultural, or ethical. Conversely, any talk of abiding by or honoring our limits becomes taboo. This is especially the case when growth enters into the equation, alongside efficiency and speed, as the key coordinates on the grid of modern values.

Illich did not buy it. In Tools for Conviviality, for example, he wrote, “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.”

From where I stand, I can see that making the case for limits is both necessary and fraught with dangers. Who gets to decide what limits are appropriate and on what authority? How might they be enforced or otherwise achieve a measure of legitimacy? How might they be experienced, in Wendell Berry’s words, not as “confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning”? How do we keep from hampering the development of genuine goods or the unfolding of legitimate progress? These are, of course, largely political questions. As Illich put it, “we need procedures to ensure that controls over the tools of society are established and governed by political process rather than by decisions by experts.” And it is needless to say that our present political culture, taken as a whole, seems hardly up to the challenge.

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