Wednesday 11 February 2015

From Information to Political Ecology

There's a fascinating quote from Ivan Illich concerning his deep concern with technology and the society which it shapes. In giving a name to the overall topic, he called it 'political ecology':
"Electronic management as a political issue can be approached in several ways. I propose, at the beginning of this public consultation, to approach the issue as one of political ecology. Ecology, during the last ten years, has acquired a new meaning. It is still the name for a branch of professional biology, but the term now increasingly serves as the label under which a broad, politically organized general public analyzes and influences technical decisions. I want to focus on the new electronic management devices as a technical change of the human environment which, to be benign, must remain under political (and not exclusively expert) control."
His demand for political control of technology echoes similar (later) statements by Feenberg, Beck and others. The question to be addressed is "What does a political ecology look like?" In addressing this, there are some critical issues to examine in Illich's own work.

In writing his book on Gender, Ivan Illich thanks Norma Swensen because she “made me recognise the main weakness of Medical Nemesis, published in 1975: its unisex perspective.” Illich’s dissection of Gender, which is really an economic critique based on the idea that the binary classification of sex obliterates the subtle nuances of gender (sex declares gender’s scarcity) was not uncontroversial. However, his acknowledgment of an earlier deficiency opens up new lines of inquiry and critique into Illich’s work on the main institutions of state apart from health: education, energy, economy, technology, social welfare and literacy. The central thesis, common to his approach to gender is his opposition to “regimes of scarcity”. Behind each of these institutions and their critique is continually shifting constellation of limiting forces - it is here that he appears to identify Political Ecologies: it isn’t simply about looking at things from different perspectives; it is more to do with inspecting the interconnections and relationships between perspectives and revealing their deep dynamics. Each perspective brings with it its own declarations of scarcity; each perspective brings with it its own politics: the politics of the schooling system, the politics of energy, the politics of gender. Yet the point is that political battles are related – not in their opposition between one another, but in their operating at different levels. More importantly however is the fact that each level of perspective carries with it much more that simply a particular branch of discourse. The political limits of education, health, energy, welfare, literacy and gender each have a bearing on the material constraining forces of the environment, economic conditions and individual liberty. This is because each dimension of discourse entails institutional structures, professionals and decisions. At the heart of decision is information. If Illich’s main concern can be summed up concisely, then it is a fundamental concern for the actions of professionals within institutions, or rather the means by which decisions are made at different levels of society.

Illich’s wish that society should become more convivial, that technologies should be restricted in their power, and that we found new ways of living together are in contrast to the fact that instead we have become increasingly atomised, neutered and ruled by the scarcity that technology, education and institutions engender. By the same token, the wish for conviviality must entail consideration of information and the role it plays in decision-making. Here the critique of Medical Nemesis is important: does Illich neuter information? Does he idealise people as information-processing agents? Does he disembody them? It would be an ironic error for a Catholic priest! His acknowledgement of his earlier deficiencies allows us to speculate on what Illich might say about this over 10 years after his death.

Illich critiques information as an entity rather than to inquire after the concept of information. Pointing out that
“When centralization and specialization grow beyond a certain point, they require highly programmed operators and clients. More of what each man must know is due to what another man has designed and has the power to force on him. The city child is born into an environment made up of systems that have a different meaning for their designers than for their clients". 
In a later talk he writes:
"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 instincts remain reliable: he makes the connection between the form of tools and the conviviality of the society, and this connection is couched in talk of 'information' and 'knowledge':
"In limited and well-integrated tribes, knowledge is shared quite equally among most members. All people know most of what everybody knows. On a higher level of civilization, new tools are introduced; more people know more things, but not all know how to execute them equally well. Mastery of skill does not yet imply a monopoly of understanding. One can understand fully what a goldsmith does without being one oneself. Men do not have to be cooks to know how to prepare food. This combination of widely shared information and competence for using it is characteristic of a society in which convivial tools prevail."
There is a connection then between conviviality and information; in fact there appear to be two different kinds of information at work in Illich's critiques. The negative critique presents information as the go-between stuff connecting individuals unequally; the positive critique presents information as deeply embodied and entwined within community, culture and history. The former view is a gender-neutral, transcendental subject view of information and the interactions of individual decision-making. The latter view is a kind of 'forming information' (rather like genetic information) at work in at the very core of social being.

The question concerning the nature of information and its relation to education is precisely a question about people, decisions and institutions. It is not just about the institution of education, but institutions of government, institutions of commerce and industry, of religion and so on. It is not just about decisions affecting learning and scholarship, but those affecting individual liberty, policy, supply and demand, war and peace, and the environment: each case has its place in an ecology of limiting forces each of which is conditioned by information and educational processes. Illich’s challenge for a convivial society can then be framed as a discourse about information which in turn concerns the uncovering the ecological dynamics of limiting forces that bear upon human life.

If we have done precisely the opposite of creating Illich's Convivial society, it may largely be because we have upheld Illich's critical view of information as 'connecting stuff'. If we want to change the way we live then we need explore the dynamics of information within society: work which focuses not just on the 'information messages', but also on the 'not information' which always contextualises them. It is that focus on 'not information' which throws the emphasis back on to political issues of decision, and their fundamental ecological relatedness.

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