Ivan Illich is a philosopher whose work is getting a lot of play these days and is having a great influence on the Web 2.0/social enterprise crowd. He’s perhaps most famous for his 1971 book ‘De-Schooling Society’, a radical critique of education systems in Western Europe and America, in which he claims that the institutions of learning (schools and universities) make universal education impossible. For Illich, it is the nature of these institutions that prevents people from taking control of their own education and pursuing their own interests. In other words, the institution actually gets in the way, and deters the individual from learning. Instead of schools, according to Illich, learners should participate in ‘learning webs’, much more loosely structured and fluid groups who exchange knowledge on a social basis. This loose structure, he argues, would free people to learn what, and how, they wanted.
But the implications of Illich’s criticism of the institution aren’t limited to education. Adherents of his thinking have applied the lens off his forensic deconstruction of the academic system to everything from private corporations to government departments. Wherever they see ‘schooled’ behaviour, they turn to Illich to explain the ways in which the institution, the hierarchy, inhibits creative thought and initiative. As is so often the case, the specific terms of Illich’s arguments have been somewhat stretched by their transposition to different sectors and structures, but the reason they are being revived now is because of the promise of the Web to do away with traditional organisations and infrastructures altogether. The Web seems to hold out the promise of the ‘Tools of Conviviality’ Illich described in his next book, in 1973.
The question is, to what extent are Illich’s criticisms valid, and if they are, can the Web free us to create the tools and the social webs or fluid organisations that he imagined? Well, I think we all realise that large, rigidly structured institutions do have difficulty responding to rapidly changing environments and promoting innovation, imagination and flexibility (this is just as true of the private sector as the public, btw). Setting aside for a moment the irony of a former Catholic priest decrying the brainwashing/stultifying effect of monolithic institutions (the Vatican being the example par excellence, I would say, and not just because I’m a fairly low-church Anglican), one can just as easily criticise small, decentralised groups with informal leadership for their vulnerability to factionalism, lack of accountability, their inability to deliver projects at scale, and their propensity to collapse.
But I didn’t really mean to get into a huge discussion about Ivan Illich. What I am really interested in is how the organisation might be changing, and how the reasons why people join or form organisations might be changing. I think we are seeing the beginning of a huge change, just very tentative at the moment, but definitely there, from a world in which we work for organisations primarily because they pay our salaries, to one in which we join and work for organisations or groups primarily because we want to achieve something together (obviously, we still need to get paid by someone, but hear me out).
And Other Stories (www.andotherstories.org) is a new publishing company. It’s a social enterprise and their aim is to publish excellent new fiction in translation from a number of languages (German and Portuguese to start, many more to follow). But they also want to encourage other publishers to publish more books in translation. In other words their mission is really to encourage the publishing of great literature from around the world. So far so right-on. But what’s even more interesting is the way they are going about this. They are not just sitting in a board room commissioning reader reports and scheduling one or two titles they like. They are opening up the whole governance of the organisation to anyone who wants to join in. At their regular meetings, they invite anyone with an interest in literary translation and publishing to turn up and have a drink and some food and join their discussion and throw their ideas into the ring.
Now, you are probably thinking: ‘it’s been done before, bor-ing’. Well, maybe it has, but I went to the last meeting, on Wednesday, at The Old China Hand on Roseberry Avenue, and had a beer, and met some nice people, and talked about some ideas for the subscriptions they could offer, the events they could run, titles they might acquire, and so on. And you know what? It was really good fun. As I walked away I thought, ‘This is great. Why doesn’t everyone run a business like this?’ Everybody was there because they genuinely wanted to be there and they had something to say. It was quite a heady experience. And all of a sudden all of that old utopian stuff about Linux and open-source communities and Ivan Illich came back to me, and I thought, maybe it is possible afterall. Maybe we will start coming together to do things we want to do, instead of just coming together to do what we have to do.
But what’s so new about this? I hear you cry. We’ve always had volunteers, and people have always gone into jobs that paid less because it was their passion, or their dream. What’s different about this? Well, this is different because for one thing it’s so much easier to organise. The Web makes it easier to find people with similar interests. It is the ultimate tool for conviviality because it allows us to build communities of interest so easily. You can easily set up informal global networks and attract large numbers of like-minded people who will give you some of their time and their ideas for little more than a free beer and a (figurative) pat on the back. Given the changes that are rapidly taking place in manufacturing and distribution as well, you no longer need to have the resources of a large institution to produce something, or to distribute it, or even to promote it. Now, small groups with limited resources can produce and achieve much more. This is what’s new.
Which really leads to another question. If it’s now possible, or at least easier than ever before, to do all this, does it mean that we can start to create a new working culture, one in which, as Illich himself might have put it, we take greater control of our own working pathways, one in which we create working webs, fluid, semi-permanent, mobile, flexible – to get things done, the things we want to achieve, not the ones we are told to? Because if we can, then that is truly exciting.
And And Other Stories is by no means the only example of a new business/group that is doing this already. There are hundreds of them, people like: School of Everything – www.schoolofeverything.com Social Innovation Camp – www.sicamp.org Irrepressible – www.irrepressible.info Freecycle – www.freecycle.org Bookleteer – www.bookleteer.com FixMyStreet – www.fixmystreet.com Newspaperclub – www.newspaperclub.co.uk and so on and so on….
Wherever you look, in response to specific challenges or problems, or even just in response to sudden opportunities, these nimble, inclusive, responsive community enterprises are springing up and creating their own solutions. And they are doing this not to make money, not to grow or to become famous or influential. They are doing it largely out of enthusiasm and a real desire to get things done. Because that is now made possible. So maybe Ivan Illich wasn’t so wide of the mark afterall. Maybe there is something in his criticism of unwieldy institutions because when we find that we can come together with a shared purpose or desire to solve a problem, that is the most powerful stimulus there is, and that is when we are most likely to generate the ideas and collaborate in ways that will work, when we are most engaged.
I know one thing, a hell of a lot of good ideas came out of that And Other Stories meeting, more fresh ideas than I’ve seen in a long time, and that has got to be good for business.