A Profession, of sorts
I’ve never been a joiner. When I was eleven years old I signed up for the Boy Scouts. All my friends were in Scouts. It was the thing to do in those days. I soldiered on for three years, through weekly meetings, camping trips, merit badges, fundraisers and all. But as soon as high school came along, I was done. To this day I have an aversion to joining organizations. If you go to the end of my resumé you will not find the typical long list of affiliations common to academic CVs. Something about the Boy Scout experience stayed with me.
I’m not much of a recruiter, either. My Dad, a 48-year veteran of Kiwanis was much better than I. When I was first given a free professional membership for being an academic advisor, I felt compromised, especially since the reason for my membership was the recruitment of ten of my students as organization members. We academics are supposed to engage our students with professional organizations, but I began to wonder whether this sort of cheerleading was such a good idea.
In Genius and the Mobocracy Frank Lloyd Wright said: “The profession to which Louis H. Sullivan belonged, unable to value him, neglected him. But professionalism is parasitic—a body of men unable to do more than band together to protect themselves.” Now FLW was not the most generous person in the world. He could be more of a faultfinder than a soothsayer, and some of his writing suffers as a result of intolerance. That said, he never forgave the brotherhood of American architects for its treatment of Sullivan late in life. Yet, the quote has a ring of truth to it.
A number of years ago, long after I’d left the Scouts, I penned a self-righteous screed criticizing the inherent myths of expertism. I must confess, at the time I was not armed with the most credible objections, and at least one of my grad-school mentors had trouble accepting the apparent irrationality of my discontentment. More recently, while reading John Thackara’s wonderful In the Bubble, I came across his reference to Ivan Illich’s 1973 book Tools for Conviviality. Here, in 110 jam-packed pages, Illich advanced all the arguments I was lacking in my own earlier critique of professionalism. According to Illich, industrial growth and efficiency demands that man “submit to the logic of his tools.” Since it is in the nature of man’s “vital equilibrium” to resist such a dynamic, men must be manipulated by education, engineering, and bureaucracy. “People feel joy, as opposed to mere pleasure, to the extent that their activities are creative; while the growth of tools beyond a certain point increases regimentation, dependence, exploitation, and impotence.” (p. 20)
Sentiments like these owe a debt to Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia Query XIX (1782) and to the critics of the first industrial revolution, like Ruskin and Morris, who began framing the anti-industrial argument 150 years ago. Of the Crystal Palace exhibition, a young Morris claimed to have been sickened by its tastelessness. In later years he became more equivocal. InThe Revival of Handicraft (1888) Morris wrote, “As a condition of life, production by machinery is altogether an evil,” but he also had to admit, “…as an instrument for forcing on us better conditions of life it has been, and for some time yet will be, indispensable.”
By 1946, in Vision In Motion, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy was more direct. While criticizing the division of labor that relieves all workers, designers, manufacturers, and distributors of direct responsibility for the contents of products, he complained that “…irresponsibility prevails everywhere” and reserved especial disdain for professionals:
“The industrial era marks the extinction of the amateur and the arrival of the careerist, whose only aim is to commercialize the means of expression, that is, not to produce out of conviction, but merely to deliver technical skill for whatever subject is asked.” (p. 20)
Illich would see this dilemma as the result of attempts to order modern existence, efforts that replace freedom with control, and creativity with wage slavery. He felt the industrialization of any human activity created a “radical monopoly” over the activity. “Radical monopoly reflects the industrial institutionalization of values. It substitutes the standard package for the personal response. It introduces new classes of scarcity and a new device to classify people according to the level of their consumption.” (p. 54) Of this, “institutionalization of values” carries a price in the loss of autonomy. Worse yet: “The institutionalization of knowledge leads to a more general and degrading delusion. It makes people dependent on having their knowledge produced for them. It leads to a paralysis of the moral and political imagination.” (pp. 85-86)
For Illich industrialization also results in a paralysis of “independent action.” People don’t just learn what they want to know; they must be “educated.” Building codes and trades relieve them of the right to construct their own dwelling. Schools and curricula constrict independent learning. Doctors and hospitals take control of and profit from death. Morticians monopolize burial, etc. This dependence means people tend to valorize products of major institutions above those of individuals, and appreciate progressive consumption, even of intangibles like education or health care.
Illich predicted that addiction to ones’ tools would lead to a mistaken belief in unrestrained progress and a dependency upon expanding consumption. “The pooling of stores of information, the building up of a knowledge stock, the attempt to overwhelm present problems by the production of more science is the ultimate attempt to solve a crisis by escalation.” (p. 9)
One needn’t look too far beyond modern citizens chained to their workstations, entombed in their vehicles, or enthralled by their cell phones to understand what Illich means when he says that consumer society results in “prisoners of addiction” and “prisoners of envy.” In a passage far more damning than anything Wright or Moholy-Nagy ever penned, Illich indicts all professions, legal, medical, engineering and others (which should include academic) as the means by which people are made dependent in the industrial state: “The knowledge capitalism of professional imperialism subjugates people more imperceptibly than and as effectively as international finance or weaponry.” (p. 43)
In place of subjugation he offers an alternative, what he terms “conviviality.” He defines it thus: “I chose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment… I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value.” (p. 11) Members of advanced industrial societies, where belief in social autonomy and economic progress results in periodic catastrophes, call this “tribalism.”
Like Morris, Illich does not rule out the use of machines. He realizes that humans are tool users. When he argues for de-professionalizing he does not imply deskilling. “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.” (p. 21) His argument against the inefficiency of transportation methods that exceed the speed of a bicycle reminds me of David Orr’s discussion in The Nature of Design that Amish transportation is necessarily limited to the distance a horse can travel in a day. Illich is searching not for substitute artifacts, but for ways of interacting with tools that are creative rather than compulsive, what Orr terms “slow knowledge.”
Arguing against the uniformity that industrialism creates, Illich proposes an attempt to strike a balance to radical monopoly. He says that five things balance life: 1) a healthy environment, 2) a convivial economy, 3) resistance to over-programming (whether of mass manufacturing/marketing, mass transit, or mass education), 4) economic equality based upon social justice, and 5) durability rather than obsolescence. He feels society needs to be bounded, unlike in recent capitalist models, and argues that unhealthful progress needs to be inhibited. There will be obstacles to overcome, but these can be mastered through the demythologization of science, a rediscovery of language, and the recovery of legal procedure, which, Illich suggests, is complicit in the expansion of industrial control over people.
According to Illich’s model, underdeveloped societies, those “…in which most people depend for their goods and services on the personal whim, kindness, or skill of another” are closer to a natural state of existence than “…those in which living has been transformed into a process of ordering from an all-encompassing catalogue.” (p. 25) This observation equates well with African societies, for instance, where a majority of citizens live closer to the ground, dependent upon extended social ties and producing much of their own food.
Ironically, it is from the “developing world” that some of the best curative proposals have emerged (Illich himself worked in Mexico). When I consider deprofessionalizing, I’m drawn to Arvind Lodaya’s letter to a British design student where he says: “I think that as long as design is positioned as a ‘service’ that requires a ‘client’ with a typical ‘problem’ or ‘brief’ that she ‘solves’ using her ‘skills’, there is no way out. Unfortunately, all the well-intentioned efforts made by teachers like myself to sensitize students about the global situation and the role played by design in creating it as such etc. etc., fail as long as this model is perpetuated – even subconsciously.” When asked his opinion of this essay, Lodaya referenced Ghandi’s 1909 paper Hind Swaraj in which he proposed that a doctor “…give up his profession, and take up a handloom…” In some parts of the world this resistance to re-colonization by foreign models of practice is at least as strong as the desire for Western goods. Lodaya outlines his own ideas for a resolution of the dilemma in his cogent Agenda for a 21st Century India Report.
Professions are fundamentally aristocratic, and for members of privileged social groups to willingly renounce the prestige and affluence their positions afford is less likely now than it might have been in the hopeful 1970s. Yet, even back then Illich was unflagging in his criticism of such professions: “It is useless to expect the American Medical Association, the National Education Association, or the association of traffic engineers to explain in ordinary language the professional gangsterism of their colleagues.” (p. 98)
Is there really anything about professionalism offensive enough to warrant such invective? Isn’t it important to the establishment of best practice standards, licensure, and other things beneficial to consumers? Isn’t it dedicated to numerous forms of community service? Doesn’t it even exist in the developing world? In fact, both Rotary and Kiwanis Internationals have chapters in developing-world cities where membership is coveted as an invaluable networking tool. But even here Illich foresaw that have-nots aspire to join the highly trained hierarchies needed to monitor and control expanding industrialization.
In the design trades, which have long striven for legitimacy among their peer professions, self-redefinition for the sake of the common good is unlikely. After all, under our current system what seems more fitting than individual financial success, even if it’s at the expense of society as a whole? And who’s to determine what’s too expensive for society to bear, some wayward socialist intellectual? Furthermore, what defines the threshold of pain for an unsustainable future— Collapse of the domestic housing market? Millions of victims of global climate change? World banking chaos? Loss of the American manufacturing sector? Somali pirates? We already coexist with these realities and, if we don’t think about Moholy-Nagy too much, we can pass the responsibility on to future generations and carry on in the comfort of insider affiliation very well indeed.
Cutting the professional safety net can seem like cutting the ground from under the feet of people over-invested in the dominant system. The AIGA’s current Aspen Design Challenge (a collaboration with INDEX) epitomizes this system: engage students in top-down design contests to address large-scale developing-world problems. But Illich saw through this with a clever analogy when he wrote: “Deprofessionalization means a renewed distinction between the freedom of vocation and the occasional boost sick people derive from the quasi-religious authority of the certified doctor.”(p. 36)
If our society aspires to truly address its problems with something more potent than platitudes and design contests, it will require real sacrifice— the kind that substitutes other for self, and true imagination for lock-step networking. At times the best course of action demands more than complete dependence, more even than radical independence. Sometimes the best solution for a healthy society is non-aggrandizing interdependence, despite the risk of lost authority and increased social entanglement, contrary to predictable norms, contraindicated by conventional wisdom. In other words, when it comes to scouting, neither a joiner nor a recruiter be. That’s a loose paraphrase of the original attributed to Shakespeare’s Polonius, who, while he may well have been a professional aristocrat, was definitely not a budding Kiwanian.
David Stairs is editor of Design-Altruism-Project.