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The Limits and "Good" of Public Goods

January 18, 2022

Originally written Aug 2021 as The Language of Public Goods. (been a while since I last wrote something! here's an attempt to put down some thoughts around language/technology, limits/balance, commons. and yes, there is an extreme amount of notes, couldn't help it!)

Is language itself a public goodtypically defined in economic terms as non-excludable, non-rivalrous.? We can't easily exclude anyone from learning or communicating in one. Being able to speak it doesn't limit anyone else's access; the whole purpose of it is to speak with others. Nor can we really stop the creation of new slang, variants, or new languages entirely. We might even say that this innate freedom to proclaim and enact new ways of life, starting with language, is what creates culture itself.

While language as a whole may not be excluded, we find ways in which it is flattened. We dampen the complexity of thought through a desire for efficient speech; a uniformity of lingua franca"Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films" - Bong Joon Ho, whether in trade, administration, or religion, crowds out personal variants and local dialects. Schools may enforce a certain kind of proper speech or writing through standardized tests. Every medium of expression can be formalized into its own melody: we learn to intake from a homogenized "news anchor voice", or more recently a YouTuber/TikTok one.

Language can become monotonous even at the level of words. Tech monopolies with enough reach can replace previous verbs; after all to google is to search. Some words such as "progress", "value", and even "life"Illich's speech boldly proclaimed "to hell with life" have transcended all reasonable limits to become plastic wordsI'm sure I use plenty of these in this essay. Also, the opposite approach of removing all ambiguity, like doubleplusgood in Newspeak, seems to end up with the same issue, a loss of meaning and voice.. Their malleable use by those in power expands their connotation (what it implies) so as to lose all denotation (what it refers to). Advertising, corporations"Have the KPIs of my own life failed to grow quarter-over-quarter?" - watch "I have delivered value..", and politicians justify and camouflage their actions with these linguistic egoAn amusing typo works better! blocks: Why not go ahead with my strategy? Don’t prevent The Future! Why stop Progress? We are moving forward!

The prevalence of this kind of thought in the tech industry is worth a second look. That software has eaten the world gives a worldview that can't think otherwise"there's an app for that", where the idea of inevitability becomes its own self-fulfillingwe could see Moore’s Law as a positive version of this: an observation turned into a goal to meet. tyranny. "Big tech" cannot wait to internalize every externality into value. "All jobs will be automated", "code is the new literacy", "self-drivingmore recently, the metaverse is happening", and (tongue-in-cheek or not) "Bitcoin solves this"wagmi, right become our prized proclamations.

"There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening." - Marshall McLuhan

Why do we think we have the authority, that level of power and control? If we believe the myth that something is bound to happen, we give up our agency to the prophets who tell us so. Why try to bring about (or stop) what will happen anyway? Why think critically about what is actually happening? If neither helping nor hurting the cause doesn't change progress, what is left for us to think, much less do?


If, as Marshall McLuhan says, media (used interchangeably with technologyand for my use case here, digital public goods) is an extensionmaybe it's more important to realize for this essay it's counterpart, an amputation of ourselves. of ourselves and creates a whole new environment that we immerse ourselves in, then we need to understand the societal implications of our use of tools. Because technology becomes a part of us, it becomes hard to understand. We take it for granted, as we already do with our own physical bodies.

Whether it's language (as previously mentioned, it extends our inner thoughts) or any other tool, seeing these goods as a form of technology may be a helpful lens to understand their impact on the world, subject to the same kinds of inquiries we’ve had of technologies throughout time, whether it be a physical clock or a digital protocol.

When we uncritically evaluate technology, we tend to treat it as inanimate blocks, standing reserveHeidegger on tech. (btw play Wilmot's Warehouse, inventory in a warehouse simply waiting to be used (recall language as simply interchangeable blocks as opposed to poetry). In contrast, Questions Concerning TechnologyCheck out The Convivial Society, I wouldn't of started on this journey of learning about tech and culture (and Illich) without it! shows us an alternative beginning, where L.M. Sacasas reminds us of the ethical nature of our artifacts.

The things we create are not neutralKranzberg's laws, "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral". It seems difficult to put the same kind of responsibility on the user of a pencil, a car, a bomb, or an algorithm. But this also means thinking beyond whether something is simply good or bad, and seeing how we live with technology as a two-way relationship and all of its implicationsThink of how an Amish community deliberates over what a technology may to do to them, not shunning all technology but being willing to ask questions or not embrace new things immediately.. As the saying goes, "we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us." In what ways does Google Maps change our experience of being human, our experience of time and place, our relationships to people, or even ourselvesLike how we relate to strangers; we used to ask for directions when lost (not that we need to go back).?


In the 1970sIllich’s Tools for Conviviality was an inspiration for Lee Felsenstein, one of early developers of the pc., the Catholic historian Ivan Illich was already pamphleteering the social effects of our tools. As a radicalFitting for the role of a historian, one that goes to the root of things! from Latin radic-., he spent his life determining what he called the "certainties" of our time, our unquestioned assumptions, our sense of reality. Who, if not what, defines it for us?

Many technologies have opened up paths for expression: the printing press for books, Flash for animations, Youtube for videos, Unity for games. But who gets to decide what gets changed in a platform? Even setting aside trust, does anyone really have the ability to balanceThis tradeoff comes up in standards. My experience on Babel gives me the sense that it exists to democratize language design in JavaScript/TC39. It bridges the gap for users to try out experimental syntax, whereas projects (understandably) may not want to implement what will inevitably change or be discarded. Fears arise that making it too easy to create your own syntax may open up a Pandora’s box of bad ideas unto GitHub, so most of the design should be left up to the experts. I don’t argue to support Babel here specifically, but it certainly fits the idea of language (design) as a common good. This is despite it being a project funded by donations in the midst of large browser vendors or VC startups. their goals with their community's input? Platforms given the means, can’t help but act like controlling parents that smother us with love (this is for your own good), acting in some cases more like carpenters than gardeners.

He recognized how computers were already doing this, becoming the root metaphorreplacing the book of existence (inputs and outputs, modular components, zeros and ones), even foreseeing a future self-perception where we would rather change ourselves to match the inputs of our tools than to change the tools themselves: "the new electronicas fyi, Illich did eventually write on a laptop, even learned basic programming devices do indeed have the power to force people to 'communicate' with them and with each other on the terms of the machine."from Silence is a Commons. We increasingly "interface" with bureaucratic systems, automated callers, chatbots, AIs on their terms. Like how we learn to use keywords rather than use natural language to search, or tweak GPT-3. What are we giving up by living on another's terms?

"You may not interact with me, nor do I wish to be downloaded by you. I should like very much to talk to you, to stare at the tip of your nose, to embrace you. But to communicate – for that I have no desire"

ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind

We use means (tools) to accomplish some end. But one means may become its own end. Illich’s term, radical monopoly"After these years, plastic had replaced pottery, carbonated beverages replaced water, Valium replaced camomile tea, and records replaced guitars." - The Right to Useful Unemployment, best describes what can happen to tools given power without limit. It means not the domination of any single brand (Tesla), but the social need for the commodity itself (cars). When drinking Sprite to "obey your thirst" becomes more necessary than water. He used this approach to critique such beloved institutions (he considered these tools) as school (Deschooling SocietyIn Illich’s phenomenology of schooling, a student becomes homo educandus. In a hidden curriculum, "the pupil is thereby 'schooled' to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new."), cars"Cars can thus monopolize traffic. They can shape a city into their image—practically ruling out locomotion on foot or by bicycle". Are streets for people, or must we be the ones to change to make room on streets for vehicles? (see this talk) (Energy and Equity), and medicine (Medical NemesisLater titled Limits to Medicine, which parallels this essay!).

We might say Illich was a paradox: a teacher that disliked compulsory school, a rebel Catholic priest, a critic of cars yet an extensive traveler. But he cared about balance, a constitution of limits. He didn't believe that any of these things were inherently bad on their own, instead he recognized that there was a threshold at which an institution becomes so large (think too big to fail) that it does the opposite of what it intends, it frustrates its own purposes.

This is the way that school turns into a substitute for learning, cars a substitute for walking, the hospital a substitute for healing. Each of those ways are perfectly valid, but they start to harm when they crowd out all other possibilities. These means become counterproductive when they start to believe that there is only one way to accomplish things, namely their own way.

Think about the classic example of induced demand, when those that build the highways believe that traffic can be solved with more lanes. Sacasas explains that this is both an inability to imagine differently but also a moral dutyif one takes it seriously, Marc's notion of Reality Privilege feels like an expression of this.: "What can an institution possibly offer you except more of itself? For example, the one remedy for the problems it has unleashed that Facebook cannot contemplate is suspending operations." Facebook cannot comprehend a metaverse where it isn't the one making connections on your behalf; Google's goal is to think for you by autocompleting your every email, conversation, purchase.

While they begin"There are two ranges in the growth of tools: the range within which machines are used to extend human capability and the range in which they are used to contract, eliminate, or replace human functions." - Tools for Conviviality as augmentations of ourselves, Illich finds that "the institutions of industrial society do just the opposite. As the power of machines increases, the role of persons more and more decreases to that of mere consumers."Think of the difference in the role of the person between a bike and a car (esp. self-driving). Bikes, even electric ones, still use a person's strength to get moving.

"The hypothesis was that machines can replace slaves. The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men."

Tools for Conviviality

He discovered the conditions that would allow for this pathological monopoly with using the language of scarcitythe foundation of modern economics. Illich desired to unveil the mirage that this scarcity was only caused by a lack of supply (not enough institutional commodities) rather than the excess of manufactured demand. But let's be real. Who could really challenge the issue of unlimited wants with a sense of enoughness? The financialization of the world has long become one of the metaphors we live by, exemplified by recentwow, that was a year ago? phenomena such as the Gamestop short squeeze. Even our alternative systems may not be free of the same problems, or are even leaning into them.

"...if blockchains serve a 'public' today, it is primarily one of decentralized finance. Fundamentally, these tokenholders share only one common object of concern: price."

Should any of us have to think about life in financial terms so much? We minmax our time and space like resources for a side hustle. Desire lines become paved by our investments rather than by our curiosities. There was a time where all my conversations started to end with the thought, "that would make a good podcast"When I felt the need to have some kind of schedule, which turned into some kind of internalized obligation to people vs. posting when I feel like it now..

Can we escape this language of scarcity, of value? The crypto ingroup are known as "tokenholders", while the outgroup are "nocoiners"we are what we do hold.. HR abbreviates humans as resources to be measured, managed, discarded. Even if not explicit, this reductionism becomes the water we swim in, our cultural liturgies.

Follow count, subscribers, page rank, h-index. This reduction is done everywhere: taxi drivers are measured solely by their number of miles driven, students become their grades or even their attendance recordThis is inherently the case with schools, but it's become natural to parents and even the students themselves (me included).. Even in the spiritual realm, faith becomes solely a belief, ritual disappears, the transcendence of a sermon may become a TED talk, covenant community becomes more like a Costco membershipA tithe becomes payment as dues, the consumer mindset of what can you do for me. Maybe you've heard of church hopping? (with the other extreme being a cult).

Programmers aren't immune to this characterization either; they become lines of code on GitHubSee Jen's tweet, "it is a tool designed to track code, not people". The abstraction of the "standardized repo" hides how each repo is maintained (it’s governance, scope, purpose), not least because each one looks the same way. Maybe they are even "open source, not open contribution""SQLite is open-source, meaning that you can make as many copies of it as you want and do whatever you want with those copies, without limitation. But SQLite is not open-contribution.". A repo can be seen as it’s own city, with its own rules, customs, and language. Traveling to a new physical country comes with an understanding of how different cultures may greet, eat, work, and play differently.


This sort of quantification and objectification comes up as this universal concept of value or utility. For Illich, value has taken over the place of what was known as the good. Value is what can increase indefinitely, has no end. And as we know "stocks only go up". Why not move fast? More is better.

Rather than being the opposite of evil, he uses the language of virtue ethicsVirtue ethics is usually contrasted with consequentialism and deontology, it describes the thought of Aristotle, eudaimonia, see After Virtue. to describe how what was good had a proper place, a golden meanFrom the wiki, courage manifests itself as the "middle" between cowardice and recklessness.. Confidence is to tread the middle ground between self-deprecation (too little) and vanity (too much). So he felt that we had lost the language of the good, and thus the language of limits.

So how can our tools balance what we can do for ourselves with what a professional service can do for us? To reiterate, Illich’s suggestion wasn’t to stop using technology entirely, but to voluntarily impose boundaries on our toolsHe preferred the term tool over technology. Tech has a magical quality to it (any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic).. Namely, "tools to work with rather than tools that 'work' for them." These "convivial" tools nurture each person's call to help themselves and their neighbor. Industrial tools end up "deskilling"Via L.M. Sacasas ourselves; we externalize our "native capacity".. Each of these capacities meets a need. The means for the satisfaction of these needs are abundant so long as they depend primarily on what people can do for themselves, with only marginal dependence on commodities." - Tools for Conviviality for healing, consoling, moving, learning, building their houses, and burying their dead." This is why he made the case for the disestablishment of compulsory school (akin to the separation of church and state) rather than it’s abolition, as is commonly misunderstood.

With industrial tools, we aren't able to make use of the use valuelike our feet (feeling like you have to take an Uber, riding a bike, taking the subway vs. walking when you are able to). Or being forced to because you have to commute from far away of our own bodies, maybe to the point our self-perception changes completely. People used to narrate their lives to doctors that listened to their stories. They understood themselves within their own words and lived experience. Now both the system itself and those in it (patients and doctors) have less need to know anything beyond what is precisely measured by instrument, whether in child care or palliative care. Patients come to believe that the main way to understand oneself is by an abstracted notion of themselves, their chartsGot me thinking that while the theory of humors is wrong it might have least incorporated how a person felt about themselves, as opposed to the outsider-looking-in view of their organs, risk level, or genes. I'm not really speaking about what the proper treatment should be, but just the change in self-image. or their risk cohort group.

The unlimited space of the digital has happily incorporated the same kind of alienation while simultaneously being connected to everyone. It masks our sense of the physical; even the nebulous language of the "cloud" that gives the illusion that this cyberspace is disembodied when its very foundation is miles of cables, data centers, and serversSacasas expands on this notion in The Materiality of Digital Culture.. We become creators and yet by our revealed preferences, we feel as if our Googled keywords can know us better than ourselves. We grant algorithms our ability to choose, and increasingly our ability to think. Our innate sense of thirst loses out to an app; maybe we feel better represented as a wilting plant that needs to be hydrated. We become like tamagotchis that desire to be managed. Even our very existence is digitally mediated: losing your phone, getting shadowbanned, or being ghosted is essentially death.

There is a clear pull to automate away all our decision making, whether to a corporation or even the computer. Maybe the myth of technological neutrality See Drew Austin’s Worn Out, for a piece on tech’s supposedly neutral attitude applied to the realm of fashion. hasn’t died. This is pretty clear in some notions of "trustlessness" within crypto and the dreams of "code as law". We see ourselves and entirely subjective and thus biased. Any chance we have to remove ourselves, we take, forgetting that it is precisely our personal commitments that motivate us to make art, create structures, practice science. We outsource to our end"Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man." - The Abolition of Man.

T.S. Eliot has this to say:

"They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be."

We could easily replace no one will "need to be good" with "need to choose". But it doesn't have to be this way(new) vgr has a good thread on this point: "While DAOs can work this way, and therefore exactly mirror say corporate bylaws or national constitutions, the point is they don’t have to. Tokens are a more expressive medium and can be designed to either faithfully reproduce familiar patterns or craft new ones.". Vitalik Buterin at least argues that "the goal of crypto was never to remove the need for all trust." He suggests that using multi-sigs or social recovery wallets (which involve people) doesn’t betray the goal of crypto, but "give people access to.. building blocks that give people more choice in whom to trust"..and furthermore allow people to build more constrained forms of trust: giving someone the power to do some things on your behalf without giving them the power to do everything." - Why we need wide adoption of social recovery wallets." In a similar vein, DAOs should refer to the freedom of each party to make decisions rather than a desire to make organizations operated without human control. This at least can suggest a view of living with technology rather than being dominated by it.


Living with technology means sitting limits on the power of our tools, reducing our dependence on industrial commodities. Illich suggests that we need to rediscover what was vernacular, as non-economic ways of thinking and being. Typically referring to local languagesAs a native English speaker, it’s easy to forget a similar monopoly as JavaScript is to programming. Making this experiment to allow for aliased keywords in JS (nuevo instead of new) had pushback that it was less "efficient" than keeping everything (code, examples, docs) English, as if that was our only goal. (naturally I would think of the convenience too). and architecture, Illich remixes the term to be a domain that is homemade, and thus within bounds. Like a book dedication, it’s when we create for particular people (that we know by namecompare Wordle is a Love Story to What do you think of the Wordle guy not monetizing it?) rather than the abstraction of a user story, cohort, or "the world". Grandma’s homemade cookingLoved An app can be a home-cooked meal by Robin Sloan doesn’t necessarily need to be incorporated into the economyPositive externality is still an economic term; it needs to capture value outside it’s system given it defines everything in terms of itself (any system would). as one step on the road to becoming a professional chef. Maybe it’s for no purpose, no views, no revenue. It’s the earlier hacker ethos, a spirit of leisure and playRegarding play, concerned parents and lawmakers associate video games with violence. Gamer or not, it can feel like the main verbs are dominated by combat, namely shooting. It requires titles such as Journey (online cooperation), Wandersong (singing), and Before Your Eyes (blinking) to help us to conceive of different ways to interact in our virtual worlds., for no reason at all. For it's own sake, on our own termsvs. the terms of an economy, corporation, machine. Simply because we want to..

Against this backdrop of the vernacular, Illich asks us to look beyond the modern dichotomy of private and public space (and maybe public goods), managed by explicit rules, and towards the commons.

"A commons is not a public space. A commons is a space which is established by custom. It cannot be regulated by law. The law would never be able to give sufficient details to regulate a commons."

To break this mold, he tells the forgotten past of a commons in our own personal space, namely our body. He makes the (kinda gross) point that before things like pesticide, our skin was regularly inhabited with animals. Bed bugs, lice, fleas. It was a "shared" space, and we didn’t think much of it (there was nothing that could be done).

Now we can’t help but think of our skin as this dividing line between ourselves and the outside world, it becomes that much harder to understand a shared commons. The door that separates our private homes from the street represents our bufferedSee Charles Taylor's notion of porous (pre-modern, accepting of spirits/God, connecting the inner and outer) selves vs. buffered (modern, preventing anything from affecting the self, including transcendence/meaning) selves in A Secular Age., isolated self. But reminiscent of Jane Jacob’s sidewalk lifeAs opposed to public and private life, Illich reminds us that we aren’t necessarily separated by rigid lines. He writes that even our "inhabited hair, belonging at the same time to inside and outside, makes the division more fuzzy".

Let us wish to recoup such a notion of commons. Not seeing ourselves as sovereign individuals or homogenous components in a global program, but as interdependent members within a body of many parts"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.", "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together." - 1 Cor 12:12-31.. That we may share a proverbial table with those around us, in an intimate space where our neighbor’s auranow it's all vibes, can assure us we are heard. Maybe it’s there that even our words can find their limits, in silenceAn attention economy doesn’t want our silence, can't contain it..

"The first set of tools produces according to abstract plans for men in general; the other set enhances the ability of people to pursue their own goals in their unique way." - Tools for Conviviality

What convivial tools can help us recover these limits: of institutions, of language, of ourselves?


Big thanks to Scott Moore + Public Goods RFP for the initial push to write something, I honestly wouldn't have done so otherwise! Checkout his latest post for similar ideas. And if your curious about Illich, please give L.M. Sacasas a follow.