Software and the monopoly of the recent

Every now and then, I end up revisiting the ideas of Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality and thinking about they might apply to computers. For a book that doesn’t mention the word “computer,” (that I can recall, at least) and was written well before the personal computing revolution, it’s surprisingly compatible the early ideal of computing as an empowering medium for thought. Think Alan Kay or the ideals of the free software movement.

For Illich, the idea of “conviviality” as it relates to tools is a balance between personal autonomy and freedom from dominiation by the majority. To quote:

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

So it was nice to stumble on the Hope in Source podcast interview with Stephen Kell, which talks a lot about conviviality and computing. What struck me most in the conversation was the idea that Kell called “the monopoly of the recent,” namely that the tech world is too obsessed with newness, often to our detriment and to the exclusion of others. Drawing on Illich’s ideas of a radical monopoly, Kell says:

It definitely spoke to me when I read it in Tools for Conviviality. And he talked about how in the sort of seventies United States, there was a radical monopoly of the car, in that society was designed so that you had to use a car to get around and it was kind of impractical to survive without one. You could do it, but you confined yourself to the fringes. You weren’t a full participant.

So I thought what’s the equivalent in software. And what I came up with was this idea of change, right. Always working with the latest thing. That’s that’s to me the most equivalent concept in software, because it’s like the monopoly of the recent. If you want to use some old piece of software that you happen to know does what you want. And maybe it’s simpler or performs better than some newer version. Yeah, you can do that, but you’re confining yourself to the fringes, right? Because suddenly you need to install the old versions of a dozen other things, and suddenly you’ve got security problems to contend with maybe. Because everything is so interconnected, you’ve confined yourself to not being a Real participant in the software community anymore.

Today’s “monopoly of the car” is the smartphone. It’s increasingly more difficult to get by in society without one.

There are some connections to make here with the permacomputing movement, to be sure.