Virtual trespassing

Author: Andreea Ferenț

A reaction paper to Ivan Illich’s “Silence is a Commons”

“Clearly you foresee that machines which ape people are tending to encroach on every aspect of people’s lives, and that such machines force people to behave like machines.”

“Observations of the sickening effect of programmed environments show that people in them become indolent, impotent, narcissistic and apolitical. The political process breaks down, because people cease to be able to govern themselves; they demand to be managed.”

Illich’s lecture starts by revealing his pessimism on the subject of the future of humanity, a future that starts degrading along with the intrusion of the new technologies. The new devices are starting to take control over the individual’s exterior by polluting his environment. They are also poisonous for its intrinsic attributes by making him “indolent, impotent, narcissistic and apolitical” and by sucking all of his self-control the individual will now need to be handled. People will therefore need machines for everything they do and this will decay their inner self-respect up to the point where they won’t be able to take it anymore. In order to keep that from happening, the political power should prove itself to be regulatory.

Illich starts building his case by explaining, in a detailed and ample manner, the difference between “commons” and “resources”. Commons are the elements of the environment that help maintain a good life for the individuals, elements that they do not own but they know they can make use of because of the unwritten laws of tradition. Along with the enclosures, the commons reshape into resources and individuals are transformed therefore precisely into consumers that depend on the commodities the market puts on their table. To make the bridge to his starting point concerning the technological progress he tells the story of how a loudspeaker would concentrate the attribute of being heard in the city in the hands of the ones that owned them. Before the loudspeakers everybody was able to speak and was heard. This leads to his main idea and to the powerful metaphor of silence that is crucial in the discourse. We see now how in progress you get to lose the community, the group and how the right to speak is not for everyone anymore. Silence is a metaphor for the right of everyone to speak.

The improvements in the means of communication are therefore an important aspect of the discourse. Illich is quite pessimistic about the effects that those advances bring into the lives of humans, his post-development/anti-development way of seeing things challenges the meaning of progress by shining a light on what is sacrificed in the process.

In order to further illustrate the arguments, he presents the case of a street in Mexico City that used to be full of people doing all sorts of activities; people selling different products, children playing, others chatting and so on. The same street transformed into a space for automobiles where people can no longer find a place for their agitation. By telling this story about the progress in technology, he does something remarkable, he concentrates attention into the complexity of the world of commons by showing that there are some abstract commons we hardly think about, such as silence. Although he does not seem to imagine the creation of a digital commons, he fears that electronics will end up destroying the “common of silence” so he recommends a policy of self-limitation. Silence here represents fellowship and to a certain extent solidarity.

By letting the improvements in the means of communication run free we are exposed to the risk of losing silence, that it is now reinvented into a resource and gathered into the hands of the ones having control over the means of communication. An evocative example is the #metoo movement. A lot of Hollywood stars claimed they were sexually abused by a movie director but they did not use their right to speak because it wouldn’t seem like it would make a difference because of all the power and control that director had over the media. Most of them did denounce publicly the abuses before it became a big scandal but they did not get the attention. What this sort of power does here is that it separates the ones that can speak and are heard and the ones that speak but their speech is suffocated. This polarization works at this level as a way of placing light or shadow over certain categories or types of speeches. I think a good way of putting this is to say that silence is not golden if you are in the dark.

The predictions Illich makes prove an insightful understanding of the workings of society, some of them seem to have come true to a certain extent, but some of them did not have the ability to capture the great complexity of today’s devices and way of living. It is questionable if today’s individual has become “indolent, impotent, narcissistic and apolitical”. When talking about how people became indolent, it may seem that way because we get to do our errands and shopping and a lot of things on our computers at home, but I don’t think that needs to lead to slothfulness, and therefore I would grade this first assumption with “possible”. People are “impotent” with the new technologies nowadays, that is probably true, the very simple example of trying to get by a few days without a phone shows how much we need devices to act effectively. I think being “narcissistic” and being “apolitical” in this context are intertwined with the “need to be managed”, but the fact that being narcissistic should be in opposition with the need to being managed leads me to think that those controlling devices would still need to give people the sense of self-governance. This also talks about the radical way of thinking in the discourse. The attribute of being narcissistic may grow with the arising of the “progress” and this is a tricky interpretation because one could argue that all the new ways of putting yourself on display make people more eager to gain admiration. However, I think that narcissism could always find ways of exhibit, but maybe today it is at its most obvious level. Now, I consider the apolitical argument non-convincing because the social networks today have proven themselves to be great spaces of bringing people together in activism and sharing important political arguments, I would even say that sometimes it is an empowering space.

Although this analysis has proven to be a complex way of anticipating a lot of today’s society characteristics, the objection I could raise would be to picturing the digital innovations as strictly demonic to people. I think there is a strong component regarding knowledge and knowing yourself through the revolution in electronics and not one of growing apart of one’s own subjectivity, as it seems to be the case in Illich’s presentation.

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