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September 6, 2006

Ivan Illich and Silence as a Commons

Silence is a commons.

Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, calls it the “corporate takeover of nature and the Disneyfication of the wild.” He’s referring the American Recreation Coalition, an industry trade association, and its new “Scenic Byways” website that proposes inserting “tonal patterns” into roadways as a new form of “innovative communication” (i.e., advertising). Kym Murphy, the former v.p. for environmental policy at the Walt Disney Company, explains:

The Walt Disney Company is experimenting with ways to communicate with its visitors by non-visual means in order to enhance visitors’ experiences and protect the visual landscape. We have successfully created a technology for pavement “grooves and ridges” which cause tires literally to hum a tune as a vehicle passes over them! In the future, this non-visual “cue” to guests could let them know they are approaching a Disney property and bring smiles to their faces.
Why not use Scenic Byways as the leading-edge “laboratory” for this simple approach to alerting motorists that they are approaching a wayside, a recreation opportunity or an interpretive site? Consistent throughout a byway – or all byways – these simple cues could effectively communicate a standardized message, much like a stop sign, while helping to eliminate the need for visual clutter and creating a sense of continuity along the byway. Several unique, recognizable rhythms or tonal patterns could be used as audible invitations to pause along the byway, making visitors more receptive to “hearing” the byway stories we have to tell.

Um, well…thanks, but I think I’ll pass. This is an “innovation” I can do without.

Hearing of Disney’s idea to bring “tonal patterns” to roads reminded me of a seminal essay by the late Ivan Illich that deserves to be remembered. Illich himself ought to be remembered and studied more frequently. He was an brilliant, iconoclastic mind, an early advocate for the commons and a penetrating critic of modern institutions as seen in such books as De-Schooling Society (1971), Tools for Conviviality (1973) and Medical Nemesis (1976). (Click here for his Wikipedia entry and here for a collection of his writings on the web.)

Illich’s essay, “ Silence is a Commons,” appeared in CoEvolution Quarterly in winter 1983, and I still marvel at how much wisdom he packed into that short piece. It was still the early days of the personal computer revolution, and Illich feared that “computers are doing to communication what fences did to pastures and cars did to streets.”

It’s too bad that he didn’t live to see the rise of the Internet, which in some ways has mitigated some of his fears (and in other ways, fulfilled his fears). In any case, his take on the commons and the threats to it are still worth considering. He starts with a nicely nuanced description of the commons:

People called commons those parts of the environment for which customary law exacted specific forms of community respect. People called commons that part of the environment which lay beyond their own thresholds and outside of their own possessions, to which, however, they had recognized claims of usage, not to produce commodities but to provide for the subsistence of their households. The customary law which humanized the environment by establishing the commons was usually unwritten. It was unwritten law not only because people did not care to write it down, but because what it protected was a reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs.

Illich’s concern was that computers were disenfranchising the communications and culture of those people who did not have computers. To illustrate this point, he told the story of the arrival of the first loudspeaker on the island of Brac, in a village on the Dalmatian coast, where his grandfather lived. It was 1926.

Few people there had ever heard of such a thing. Up to that day, all men and women had spoken with more or less equally powerful voices. Henceforth this would change. Henceforth the access to the microphone would determine whose voice shall be magnified. Silence now ceased to be in the commons; it became a resource for which loudspeakers compete. Language itself was transformed thereby from a local commons into a national resource for communication. As enclosure by the lords increased national productivity by denying the individual peasant to keep a few sheep, so the encroachment of the loudspeaker has destroyed that silence which so far had given each man and woman his or her proper and equal voice. Unless you have access to a loudspeaker, you now are silenced.
The issue which I propose for discussion should therefore be clear: how to counter the encroachment of new, electronic devices and systems upon commons that are more subtle and more intimate to our being than either grassland or roads – commons that are at least as valuable as silence.

So when Disney proposes building “tonal patterns” into roadways – the better to invade our consciousness with commercial signals – it is invading a commons of silence with an insidious new kind of loudspeaker. It erodes our sovereign perceptions and autonomy in the most intimate ways.

While Illich would probably condemn the ways in which computer-mediated communication regiment and limit our human interactions, I wonder what he would make of the many online commons that have arisen in recent years. The concluding paragraphs of Illich?s essay are worth revisiting:

…Silence, according to western and eastern tradition alike, is necessary for the emergence of persons. It is taken from us by machines that ape people. We could easily be made increasingly dependent on machines for speaking and for thinking, as we are already dependent on machines for moving.
Such a transformation of the environment from a commons to a productive resource constitutes the most fundamental form of environmental degradation. This degradation has a long history, which coincides with the history of capitalism but can in no way just be reduced to it. Unfortunately the importance of this transformation has been overlooked or belittled by political ecology so far. It needs to be recognized if we are to organize defense movements of what remains of the commons. This defense constitutes the crucial public task for political action during the eighties. The task must be undertaken urgently because commons can exist without police, but resources cannot. Just as traffic does, computers call for police, and for ever more of them, and in ever more subtle forms.
By definition, resources call for defense by police. Once they are defended, their recovery as commons becomes increasingly difficult. This is a special reason for urgency.

How, then, to recover the commons when it has been turned into a “resource”? Are we fated to a life with more police to stand guard over resources that once were socially managed commons?