We are trained for consumption rather than action – Ivan Illich (1975)

Are we conditioned to get rather than to do?

The arrangement of society in favour of managed commodity production has two ultimately destructive aspects:
people are trained for consumption rather than for action,
and at the same time their range of action is narrowed.

Ivan Illich, Commodities vs. Use Values (1975)

Ivan Illich was relentless in his criticism of our tendency to institutionalize that which could be more effectively done by us individually or collectively within our local communities. In this short essay, Illich’s perspectives from 1975 are compellingly relevant today. Our passive acceptance of the consumer role is a major contributor to unsustainability within high-consumption countries. Here, he prescribes individual capability as antidote to consumption:

We live in an epoch in which learning is planned, residence standardized, traffic motorized, and communication programmed, and in which, for the first time, a large part of our foodstuff consumed by humanity passes through inter-regional markets.

In such an intensely industrialized society, people are conditioned to get things rather than to do them; they are trained to value what can be purchased rather than what they themselves can create. They want to be taught, moved, treated or guided rather than to learn, to heal and to find their own way. Impersonal institutions are assigned personal functions.

Schools produce education, motor vehicles produce locomotion, and medicine produces health care.

Are we distracted enough yet?

Streaming services and our addiction to hand-held distraction devices displace time for doing and developing competencies. Our culture of distraction and entertainment is fuelling consumption habits and the erosion of individual capabilities.

Owing to the industrialization of our world-view, it is often overlooked that each of these commodities still competes with a non-marketable use-value that people freely produce, each on his own. People learn by seeing and doing, they move on their feet, they heal, they take care of their health, and they contribute to the health of others. These activities have use-values that resist marketing.

Most valuable learning, body movement, and healing do not show up on the GNP*. People learn their mother tongue, move around, produce their children and bring them up, recover the use of broken bones, and prepare the local diet, and do these things with more or less competence and enjoyment. These are all valuable activities which most of the time will not and cannot be undertaken for money, but which can be devalued if too much money is around.

*Gross National Product (GNP)

The arrangement of society in favour of managed commodity production has two ultimately destructive aspects: people are trained for consumption rather than for action, and at the same time their range of action is narrowed.

Narrowing our range of options: IBM in 1957

Is The Internet Eroding Use Value?

Social critic, Jonathan Crary, has echoed Illich’s views in his recent book, Scorched Earth, by drawing attention to negative impacts of the internet in general and social media in particular. Is our unquestioning use of the web reducing our capacity and inclination for action and engagement in the real world?

It is remarkable that at a moment of unparalleled danger for the future of the planet, for the very survival of human and animal life, that so many people should voluntarily confine themselves in the desiccated digital closets devised by a handful of sociocidal corporations. Pathways to a different world will not be found by internet search engines. Rather, what is needed is exploration and creative receptivity to all the resources and practices developed over the long history of human societies for thousands of years. There are enormous reserves of knowledge and insight, from all eras, about techniques of subsistence and the fostering of community that need to be recovered and adapted for present needs, especially from cultures in the Global South and indigenous peoples.

Jonathan Crary, Scorched Earth

Is it a consequence of time spent on the internet that we erode our personal capabilities and contribute less of true value in the real world? As Ivan Illich implied almost fifty years ago, does the future we need lie outside of our screens in healthier relationships, improved ‘use value’, and reduced need for material consumption?


  1. Commodities vs. Use Values by Ivan Illich (1975) https://www.panarchy.org/illich/commodities.html
  2. Ivan Illich (Wikipedia)
  3. Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World by Jonathan Crary, Verso Books

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