Syllabus for the Internet Labors of Love

The work of Ivan Illich can provide an antidote to fears about automation

Full-text audio version of this essay.

SYLLABUS FOR THE INTERNET is a series about single books or bodies of work written prior to the rise of the consumer internet that now provide a way to understand the web as we know it today. View the others here.

Forecasting and preparing for the “future of work” has become a global industry. A slew of consulting firms and research institutes analyze the latest trends, often reiterating the same alarmist idea: Jobs are increasingly vulnerable to automation and millions may soon find themselves out of work. Truckers will be replaced by self-driving transport vehicles. Workers in retail and manufacturing sectors will be usurped by robots. Even highly-educated “knowledge” workers — previously thought to be more secure due to the varied cognitive tasks their roles require — are threatened by improvements in artificial intelligence. The solution, expressed in report after report, lies in “future-proofing” ourselves by retraining for success in the new economy hurtling toward us. In a society like ours that conflates work with identity, the fear is not only that one’s job could become obsolete, but that one’s very self could become obsolete as well.

But while claims of job loss due to automation are likely overblown, it is important to question the ideology of scarcity that fuels this discourse around work. We are expected to treat employment as good in itself, such that any potential job shortage is cause for distress. Meanwhile, individuals relinquish control over their own needs to paid professionals, while competing for limited positions created by the demands of the market economy. Few have theorized this better than Ivan Illich, a Catholic philosopher, historian, and social critic who died in 2002. Born in Vienna in 1926, Illich became well-known in the 1970s for his incisive critiques of modern institutions, detailed in talks and publications including Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, and the essay collections Shadow Work and Toward a History of Needs. His life and work is detailed in Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey, a biography published this year by Canadian writer and radio broadcaster David Cayley.

We are expected to treat employment as good in itself, such that any potential job shortage is cause for distress

Illich’s analysis goes to the heart of the western economic tradition, which, broadly speaking, associates scarcity with value. “The identification of that which is desirable with that which is scarce has deeply shaped our thinking, our feeling, our perception of reality itself,” he wrote in Shadow Work. Cayley quotes British economist Lionel Robbins, who proposed the enduring definition of economics as “the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” Many locate scarcity in limited means, however, Cayley points out that means are not scarce in themselves, but only in relation to the infinite ends people devise for them. Scarcity is a consequence of limitlessness — of ambition, of desire, and even of good intentions. 

Meanwhile, the economy’s incessant claims on our time and energy diminishes our engagement in non-commodified activities. According to Illich, it is only the willing acceptance of limits — a sense of enoughness — that can stop monopolistic institutions from appropriating the totality of the Earth’s available resources, including our identities, in their constant quest for growth.

In Illich’s view, the transition from pre-industrial to modern societies severed things — people, animals, trees, etc. — from the context-specific web of activities that made them what they were. Modernity, and the political economy that defines it, is predicated on an ontological reductionism that disembeds things from their particular relationships and functions, instead classifying them according to general categories and technoscientific properties. Consequently, water from a river in India and water from a lake in Canada are seen today as two instances of the same thing, H2O, that in principle can be used for the same purposes as water anywhere. By erasing specificity — which encapsulates the history of each thing, its kinship with other beings, and its participation in a community that defines it according to its own cultural and social norms — the world can be reconfigured in terms of resources amenable to any and every use, and which are always in limited supply. L. M. Sacasas, a scholar of technology and of Illich’s work, highlights this issue in a recent edition of his newsletter, The Convivial Society, noting that “just about every aspect of our culture is designed to make us think that happiness, or something like it, always lies on the other side of more.”

Illich connects the creation of scarcity and the loss of specificity to the rise of professional authority on which we have become overly reliant. Referencing Paul Dumouchel and Jean-Pierre Dupuy, he observes that the diverse needs of individuals have been replaced by manufactured demand for ready-made commodities. While others have similarly theorized about false needs — notably, members of the Frankfurt School such as Herbert Marcuse in his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man — Illich expands this logic to top-down services, institutions, and technologies that most view as net positive for society. Formal schooling makes knowledge scarce, for example, recasting it as something that is imparted exclusively by a small number of trained educators. Likewise, the medical establishment turns health into a product that only it can provide, thereby depriving individuals of opportunities to determine their own standards of living, self-administer curative or palliative care, and construct meaning through “the art of suffering.”

Ivan Illich at his home. (Photo by Bernard Diederich/The LIFE Images Collection)

One of the key insights of Marxism is that, under capitalism, workers are alienated from the products of their labor. Illich extends this further, suggesting that in a service society, people experience even greater alienation. “Not only are they estranged from what they make, they are also estranged from what they do and what they are,” Cayley summarizes. Arguably, as careers have become increasingly specialized, we have ceded too many spheres of activity to experts, institutions, and markets. Illich observes that “people have a native capacity for healing, consoling, moving, learning, building their houses, and burying their dead,” but education, architecture, and the provision of care have become the near exclusive domain of professionals.

Our contemporary notion of the “job” is a somewhat recent development; previously, people satisfied most of their needs outside of the market economy. With the transition to formal employment, however, came what Illich describes as “modernized poverty.” Here, he is referring not to a lack of material wealth, but to a lack of autonomy engendered by widespread dependence on professionals. In part, this was driven by political, legal, and economic events that encroached on the capacity of individuals to provide for themselves. In England, the widespread enclosure of common land barred tenant farmers from subsistence agriculture, forcing them to turn to factory work. Extractive industries continue to devastate communities that rely on local biodiversity and natural resources for fishing, hunting, and trapping. Whereas people used to build their own homes according to their unique specifications, today such an undertaking is discouraged, or even illegal. Instead, plans are drawn up by a licensed architect, and construction carried out by a team of wage workers. “When dwelling by people is transformed into housing for people,” Illich writes, paraphrasing architect John Turner, “housing is changed from an activity into a commodity.”

Today, most people work for the sole purpose of earning money to meet their needs through the market. While some find meaning in their occupations, others slog through what anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” — paid work that even employees themselves believe to be completely pointless. Meanwhile, employment in the formal economy can only be sustained by “shadow work,” a term Illich coined for unpaid tasks like domestic labor, grocery shopping, and car maintenance that drain people of time and energy for other pursuits. Yet, as Illich notes, the belief that “unemployment means sad idleness, rather than the freedom to do things that are useful for oneself or for one’s neighbor” has become pervasive. In a relatively short time span, formal employment has been accepted as a precondition for usefulness, and as a result, a projected scarcity of jobs threatens individuals with obsolescence. Illich instead advocates in favor of “the right to useful unemployment,” to grant people the freedom and grace to pursue non-economic means of living.

Illich’s proposals were controversial when he published them in the 1970s, and likely still would be if they were better known today. His ideas — that formal schooling should be disestablished, that the professionalization of education, health, and architecture interferes with the capacity of individuals to develop their own practices of living and dying — advance a degree of freedom that many people find frightening. It is widely accepted that such occupations require mandatory licensing, comprehensive standards, and careful oversight for our own protection. This belief is not unfounded. Modern humans have created instruments of such immense power that hyperregulation has become necessary to circumvent catastrophic harm. Since we have cars, most people would prefer that those permitted to drive them pass a test demonstrating their ability to do so without causing damage or injury. Because the distribution of food, water, and electricity is dependent on critical technology infrastructure, it is eminently reasonable that such systems are maintained by highly trained individuals and audited regularly.

Our contemporary notion of the “job” is a somewhat recent development; previously, people satisfied most of their needs outside of the market economy

To Illich, however, it seemed as though efforts to regulate and manage human endeavors had crossed a dangerous threshold. He was especially critical of the notion that experts should bear responsibility for activities people can do themselves, on the paternalistic assumption that they are doing so “in their best interest.” Trained professionals might be more efficient, employing the latest knowledge and techniques, but the very act of performing these tasks enables individuals to be active participants in private and public life. In a memorable quote from Deschooling Society, he refers to the “pedagogical hubris” that is “our belief that man can do what God cannot, namely, manipulate others for their own salvation.”

This pointed remark reflects Illich’s contentious relationship to the Catholic Church. He saw modern-day institutions as successors of the Church, which evolved into a homogenizing, bureaucratic apparatus that made individuals dependent on its authority to fulfill the Christian vision of the good. In other words, stripping people of the capacity for autonomous decision-making and action — whether via professionalization, technocratic governance, or otherwise — is not always worth the added safety that regulation provides. As Illich writes in Tools for Conviviality, “institutions are functional when they promote a delicate balance between what people can do for themselves and what tools at the service of anonymous institutions can do for them.”

While he is sometimes read as romanticizing subsistence, Cayley takes pains to point out that Illich in fact strongly resists the notion that it is possible, or desirable, to return to some pre-industrial, agrarian society. Rather, Illich advocates for carving out space for more activities to occur outside of economic settings. Here, he draws on Karl Polanyi, author of the 1944 book The Great Transformation, who saw the transition to a market-based system as a historical turning point in human relations. Polanyi famously noted that as the market comes to dominate, “instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.”

While Marxism stresses the redistribution of ownership of the means of production, Illich is critical of proposals that allow the market to retain its position of privilege in everyday life. Rather, he insists that “excessive forms of wealth and prolonged formal employment, no matter how well-distributed, destroy the social, cultural, and environmental conditions for equal productive freedom.” Recently, for example, the trial of a four-day work week in Iceland appeared to have positive outcomes, including increased family time. But in the major English-language report analyzing data from the trial, success is also framed in terms of economic gains, celebrating the fact that shorter working hours can lead to greater productivity. We still live in what Illich calls “an age of commodity-defined needs,” and our mentality around “leisure time” continues to be defined by consumption. On the other end of the political spectrum, while Illich’s emphasis on individual autonomy may appear to align with the libertarian opposition to regulation and central planning, there is a fundamental difference: Libertarians associate freedom with the free market; Illich insists that it does not lie in the market at all, but in domains of human activity that can be sustained outside the commodified realm of economic relations. 

Illich understood that freedom requires limits. It is only by curtailing runaway economic and technological development that the vernacular can survive

Illich’s risk tolerance was likely higher than most, but that is not to say that he felt people should be able to act without restraint. The importance of limits is a key touchpoint in Illich’s thought. He identified the “vernacular” domain as fundamental to the flourishing of human autonomy. From the Latin vernaculum, meaning “homebred, homespun, homegrown, homemade,” Illich took it to comprise the broad spectrum of agricultural techniques, building styles, culinary traditions, and language patterns that emerge when non-economic, non-standard modes of being are allowed to thrive. While the concept of scarcity is predicated on the concept of limitlessness — endless wants interpreted as needs — Illich understood that freedom requires limits. It is only by curtailing runaway economic and technological development that the vernacular can survive.

While automation is purportedly intended to free people from monotonous labor, it may indeed have the opposite effect: As we begin to rely on ever more complex technological systems, the shadow work required to support them balloons, as does the need for increasingly stringent, technocratic regulation. At the same time, the specter of unemployment is perceived as a looming threat because economic productivity is viewed as foundational to the daily life of individuals. To truly guard ourselves against automation, perhaps the way forward is not to continually remake ourselves to meet the demands of the economy — and suffer as “failures” if we prove unable or unwilling to do so — but to reconnect with the work that truly sustains us. For this to occur, we need to make room for the vernacular, a realm within which Illich located the potential for creativity and surprise.

Cayley fittingly concludes Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey by emphasizing complementarity as essential to Illich’s thought; a vision of duality that would allow the market and the vernacular to coexist as separate spheres, without one dominating the other. Cayley mentions several times that Illich was not a prescriptive thinker; he did not offer much by way of detailed instructions for those eager to act on his theories. In large part, this is because the specific contours of the vernacular domain necessarily emerge from the collective activities of each political community. We must insist that no model can or should be scaled universally.

Illich once suggested that societies “can either retain their market-intensive economies, changing only the design of the output, or they can reduce their dependence on commodities.” The latter, which he clearly favored, “entails the adventure of imagining and constructing new frameworks in which individuals and communities can develop a new kind of modern tool kit.” In Deschooling Society, Illich proposed shared libraries and laboratories, skill exchanges, and peer-to-peer networks to provide people with access to self-directed learning resources. In Tools for Conviviality, he outlined the importance of decentralizing and demystifying the legal process for the benefit of everyday citizens, rather than growth-oriented corporations and industrial institutions. In Limits to Medicine, he spoke of measures to allow individuals a greater say in defining their own health and care.

Based on conversations with Illich later in his life, Cayley believes Illich became less confident that such a radical transition could still occur. And yet, by becoming aware of the stultifying effects of a professionalized society, we can still develop modes of living more responsibly, and with greater integrity. In this respect, Illich’s ideas plant the seeds for a mindset shift toward vernacular ways of being — built not on a framework of scarcity-based economics and institutionalized values, but embedded in the exercise of individual autonomy, mutually fulfilling friendships, and convivial communities.

Jackie Brown is a researcher and writer based in Toronto. Her work focuses on economic justice and the relationships between people, technology, and their environments.

Philippe Mesly is a horticulturalist, translator, and writer. He lives in Toronto with his partner.