Convivial tools

Convivial tools include technologies, techniques and institutions that allow people to thrive. Unfortunately, people are losing touch with their innate productive capacities and are increasingly becoming passive consumers of life, as opposed to active producers of life.

Technology can cause people to become less fit in many different ways – both physically and mentally. The more technology does for us, the more we become passive consumers of it. Every sort of labour-saving device, every sort of convenience, every sort of ‘value-added’, moves us further away from our natural fitness and our innate need to act in productive ways.

There is no need to exercise your will when there is nothing to exercise your will on because everything is at your fingertips. There is no need for you to have initiative if someone else, or something else, has it for you. You don’t need to use your will or make a decision if it is done for you. Of course there are many decisions you need to make – what series to watch, what snack to eat, what clothes to wear, what to buy next – these decisions are so shallow and petty as to be imperceptible. 

Physically people can become overweight and ‘out of shape’. Likewise, mentally, if we don’t use our will, it will eventually lose its strength. Will is like a muscle, in the sense that the more you use it the stronger it becomes, unfortunately the opposite is true too.

Meaning makers

Consumption is often passive, meaning it requires little or no commitment of mental or physical energy. In contrast, consumption that is active is generally more rewarding; it is the effort required that makes it more meaningful.

Convenience and ease are a disease that can cripple our will to act, and therefore get meaning. A meaningless life is boring and boredom can often lead to destructive behaviour. Human well-being is partly based on an adequate level of comfort and security, but it is also based on purpose and creativity which are inherently uncertain and risky, somewhat at least.

Many psychologists, notably Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, believe that well-being is based on healthy, active engagement with people and nature as well as the artificial and technology. Activeness and mindfulness are the key as opposed to passiveness and abstraction.


The media scholar Marshall McLuhan described technologies (or in his terms, ‘media’) which need little input as ‘hot’ media. Hot media includes radio and film, which require little participation by the audience, the content is ‘spoon-fed’ so to speak. Cool technologies, on the other hand, require more interaction by the audience because there are gaps in the content that the audience is required to fill in themselves. Cool media are lower-resolution technologies such as novels, comics, games and phone conversations. 

The point is that certain technologies can do all the work of creation, leaving us with the ends to consume but with no input to the means to achieve it. This artificial reality alienates us from our innate need to have a palpable connection with what we consume. Consumption ends up being perfunctory and meaningless.


If you ask a child where food comes from they commonly say the supermarket, or even the fridge. Power comes from the power lines or the wall socket. Water comes from the tap. To allay this alienation from natural life, Leo Tolstoy advocated for the idea of bread labour. This is when people actively produce at least some of their own food. This has the grounding effect of connecting people with what they consume.

In a similar vein another social commentator, Ivan Illich, argued for people’s need to take control of the tools and processes of production that shape their lives. Illich argued that when people participate directly in these processes, it provides much more meaning in their work lives. 

“The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies.” – Ivan Illich

Like the above mentioned cool media and bread labour, it is active participation in the process of production (or consumption) that makes it meaningful.

John Ruskin considered the dehumanising effect of separating creative work from manual labour. “It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”


Ivan Illich introduced the term ‘conviviality’ to talk about those human ‘tools’ that are essentially the opposite of industrial production. By ‘tools’ Illich meant any extension of peoples’ productive ability. (Interestingly, McLuhan defined ‘media’ as any human ‘extension’.) Tools could be anything from simple hand tools like a hammer, knife or scissors through to industrial-scale machines. Also included are cognitive ‘tools’ such as language and techniques, through to whole institutionalised systems such as factories, hospitals, and universities. 

Tools are convivial when they support the ability for people to make and learn things in personally meaningful ways, in other words, ways that are in alignment with their values, interests and abilities. 

Illich believed that the advent and proliferation of industrial production had undermined peoples’ free use of their natural abilities. This unnatural industrial development eroded peoples’ capacity to connect with themselves and others, leading to the weakening of cohesiveness in society.

We are makers

We are makers, not just consumers. People do not just need the ability to acquire things, they also need to be a part of making the things that surround them. In this way they do not feel alienated. By influencing the tools and processes of production, people can then put into effect the technologies and productions according to their tastes and needs.

Skills could be learnt that further support the use of convivial tools, giving individuals the ability to express their values and intentions through making:

An individual relates himself in action to his society through the use of tools that he actively masters, or by which he is passively acted upon. To the degree that he masters his tools, he can invest the world with his meaning; to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tool determines his own self-image. Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision. Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others. Most tools today cannot be used in a convivial fashion. – Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

Industrial tools, then, are like hot media. They don’t allow individual input. Convivial tools are like cool media that require mental input and active participation. Of course there is a place for industrial production but Illich warns that if industrialism dominates as a mode of production, this will come at the expense of people’s natural creative capacities. For this reason there needs to be an optimal balance between industrial development and individual production.

By using hand tools and simple machines we are only one or two steps abstracted from nature.

It’s all about action

It seems to be about action. If we put our energy into something we are invested in it. As well as energy we invest time, skills, will-power and purpose – our very being – into life.

With all the ‘artificial intelligence’ that has come with information technology we have unlimited knowledge at our fingertips but it does not make us wise. Wisdom is about understanding and no amount of knowledge can provide understanding. Knowledge is passive, whereas understanding is active.


Quotes from Tools for Conviviality

A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others. – Ivan Illich

As the power of machines increases, the role of persons more and more decreases to that of mere consumers. – Ivan Illich

People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them. – Ivan Illich


Illich, Ivan (1973). Tools for Conviviality.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1st ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.