Ivan Illich, “Philosophy… Artifacts… Friendship” (1996):
The person today who feels called to a life of prayer and charity cannot eschew an intellectual
grounding in the critique of perceptions, because beyond things, our perceptions are to a large extent
technogenic. Both the thing perceived and the mode of perception it calls forth are the result of
artifacts that are meant by their engineers to shape the users. The novice to the sacred liturgy and to
mental prayer has a historically new task. He is largely removed from those things – water, sunlight,
soil, and weather – that were made to speak of God’s presence. In comparison with the saints whom
he tries to emulate, his search for God’s presence is of a new kind.
Please do not take me for a technophobe. I argue for detachment from artifacts, because only
by abstaining from their use can I perceive the seductiveness of their whispers. Unlike the saintly
models of yesterday, the one who begins walking now under the eyes of God must not just divest
himself of bad habits that have become second nature; he must not only correct proclivities toward
gold or flesh or vanity that have been ingrained in his hexis, obscuring his sight or crippling his
glance. Today’s convert must recognize how his senses are continuously shaped by the artifacts he
uses. They are charged by design with intentional symbolic loads, something previously unknown.
The things today with decisively new consequences are systems, and these are so built that they
co-opt and integrate their user’s hands, ears, and eyes. The object has lost its distality by becoming
systemic. No one can easily break the bonds forged by years of television absorption and curricular
education that have turned eyes and ears into system components.
(Thanks to my friend Richard Gibson for reminding me of this crucial passage.)