In this lecture series associate director Michael Sacasas will revisit the life and work of Ivan Illich, the 20th century scholar and activist who offered a radical critique of industrial society. Having fallen into relative obscurity during the heady 1990s, Illich's work now speaks with renewed urgency to a world reeling from the consequences of climate change, economic inequality, political polarization, and institutional crisis. Challenging both the usual suspects of industrial age corruption and degradation as well as the more ostensibly benign institutions of modernity such as schooling and medicine, Illich's work is both intellectually and morally demanding, urging us to alter radically how we imagine our relationship to the world and how we envision our political order. Now as society's fault lines have been exposed by a global pandemic, Illich's vision for a more convivial society has become all the more urgent and vital.
In the 60s and 70s, Illich published a series of scathing critiques of industrial age institutions—education, medicine, and transportation notably among them. By the 1980s, however, Illich came to believe that his project had been flawed by his failure to recognize the true nature of technology in an age of systems. Illich had come to the conclusion that in the late 20th century modern societies transitioned out of the age of instruments into the age of systems. Unlike instruments, which could be easily distinguished from the user and thus regulated, systems incorporated their user in such a way that it was difficult to simply prescribe better policies for their use. This led Illich to explore the cultural history of the body and the senses. This final lecture will trace the development of Illich's thought and take up his invitation to consider how new technologies "shapes our perception of reality, rather than how we shape reality by applying or using them.”