Counterfoil

Do we use our tools, or do they use us?

Why do we have addictive tools, goods, and services that create the needs and specific demands they are specialized to satisfy?

How much inequity, harrying, and operant conditioning will we accept in exchange for the satisfaction we get from idolizing powerful devices and joining in rituals directed by the professionals who control their operation?

What if the obligatory dependencies associated with a tool increase to the detriment of sociality?

What if there are thresholds beyond which the use of certain technologies is a net negative and corrupt?

What if the greatest real benefits of our tools generally lie between the thresholds of pre-modern or early modern technology and that of industrial and information technology run amok?

Counterfoil

A counterfoil is the part of a check, receipt, ticket, or other transactional document that is torn off and kept as a record by the person issuing it to confirm the authenticity of its counterpart and thereby account for the transaction.

Suppose you had to provide an accounting for how much residential waste you produce or how much energy you consume? Suppose every business or built structure had to do this...

What if we theoretically recognized per capita limits on energy use as a social imperative and did the math?

What would our accounting, as households, neighbourhoods, and cities tell us about our capacity to live within our means — ecologically, economically, and in other respects?

What do we risk when we exceed the limits that balance requires?

In ancient Greece, Nemesis was the goddess of retribution who would take on the form of an inescapable agent of downfall for anyone who had committed hubris by exceeding the limits apppropriate to humans. Technological Nemesis is the backlash of institutionally structured industrial, technological hubris — the wanton disregard for the boundaries within which human life and community remains viable.

The energy crisis of the 1970s was only deferred and deepened at terrible costs — global warming, permanent conditions of war and terror — by the quest for new energy inputs. The crisis can only be resolved by dissolving the illlusion that our well-being depends on the number of energy-slaves we have at our command.

What is to be done?

Are there reasonable limits that can prevent us from turning our technological means into ends and incurring needless, escalating costs with diminishing returns?

How may we identify our political communities with the careful search for and guarding of these limits?

To ask these questions is the project of "counterfoil research," as proposed by Ivan Illich, whose words and ideas have been adapted to this hypertext. Counterfoil research begins with these simple questions about use, consumption, and limits. It is our choice to bring these questions to bear on our lives and the life of our communities.

Illich called for counterfoil research as "lay research not committed in advance to expert systems." Such research would try to identify the threshholds at which goals like transportation, education, and healthcare for all turns into rapid mobility, learning, and health for a few with smoggy gridlock, technical training, poor nutrition and loneliness for the many.

"To hell with the future. It's a man-eating idol. Institutions have a future ... but people have no future. People have only hope." — Ivan Illich

At the end of his life, Illich recorded a series of conversations with David Cayley for the CBC that were compiled in a book, The Rivers North of the Future. In these conversations Illich reviews his life work under the theme of an old Latin adage, "corruptio optimi pessima" — "the corruption of the best is the worst."

Illich believed that the medieval church merged the gospel and its call to love and serve all people with the legal-administrative functions of the Roman empire, and the resulting institutionalization of care became the basis for new forms of power — including, eventually, the modern state as a congealed and corrupted legacy of the old imperial religion.

In this view, it is the attempt to deal with people programmatically and on a massive scale that corrupts us by instrumentalizing life and alienating us from each other. We are made to be dependent on tools and systems, not ourselves and our communities. The things we make with our tools usually are not intended for use by our families and neighbours.

What hope can we have of effectively resisting or opting out of the servility, isolation, and pointless busywork that dominates the official culture? One of Illich's books is called Tools for Conviviality. In it, he encourages the creation and adoption of tools that guarantee our right to work with high, independent efficiency.

Convivial tools "rule out certain levels of power, compulsion and programming." There will always be "manipulative institutions and addictive goods and services," but we can seek a "balance between those tools which create the specific demands they are specialized to satisfy and those complementary, enabling tools which foster self-realization."

The only solution to the environmental crisis is the shared insight of people that they would be happier if they could work together and care for each other.

It does not matter for what specific purpose minorities now organize if they seek an equal share in consumption, an equal place on the pyramid of production, or equal nominal power in the government of ungovernable tools. As long as a minority acts to increase its share within a growth-oriented society, the final result will be a keener sense of inferiority for most of its members.

The alternative to managerial fascism is a political process by which people decide how much of any scarce resource is the most any member of society can claim; a process in which they agree to keep limits relatively stationary over a long time, and by which they set a premium on the constant search for new ways to have an ever larger percentage of the population join in doing ever more with ever less.