Mar 8 • 1HR 3M

In conversation with David Cayley

Imperfect world

 
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Appears in this episode

Christopher Hobson
’Imperfect world’ is a series of conversations exploring exploring where politics, society, and technology meet. Hosted by Japan-based scholar, Dr Christopher Hobson.

This conversation was already posted on the ‘Imperfect world’ podcast feed, I am cross-posting it here in case this platform is better suited for some audience. For future episodes, I will post them across both platforms simultaneously.

To begin this series of ‘Imperfect World’ conversations, I spoke with David Cayley, who spent much of his career producing long-form radio programs for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, including a 24 part series on ‘how to think about science’.

As part of his work, Cayley recorded a series of interviews with Ivan Illich, whose thinking on the way that technologies are reshaping people, as well as his acute critiques of major societal institutions, have been rediscovered in recent years. These are available online, and throughly worthwhile. In 2021, Cayley published, Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey, which explores the life and work of this powerful thinker. Given that Illich’s writings are often quite condensed and stylised, Cayley’s exposition of his thought offers a great entry point. A much shorter place to start would be this overview by LM Sacasas, whose ‘Convivial Society’ substack is named in reference to Illich’s work.

My conversation with Cayley circles around some big issues present in his work and in Illich’s, including the role of science in society, how to think about technology, the importance of limits, surprise and much more. Illich’s thinking provides an important reference point for our discussion, but no specific knowledge of his thought is needed to follow our exchange. Perhaps after listening, you might wish to delve a bit deeper.

The conversation begins by thinking about how our contemporary world has, to use Illich’s words, been ‘stunned by a delusion about science’. This seemed like a good place to start given that our belief in technology, and as part of that, the advance of technology as something inevitable and unstoppable, is closely connected to our belief in science. Our discussion moved onto thinking about the role of technology in society. Illich spoke specifically of tools, and with this framing, encouraged us to consider how these shape our interaction with the world:

I would like to get … people to think about what tools do to our perception rather than what we can do with them, to look at how tools shape our mind, how their uses shapes our perception of reality, rather how we shape reality by applying or using them.

In his book, Cayley details a shift in Illich’s thought towards the end of his life, a concern with a certain kind of historical momentum, of people throwing off natural limits, with institutions and modern society continually expanding in scope. Illich observed that, ‘everything seems confusing… and incomprehensible… out of whack with any prior epoch’. His warning that we are creating a world that is no longer hospitable for us, no longer fit to a human scale, is something we also consider in this wide ranging discussion.

This is my first conversation in this series, and it is very much a work in progress. Putting them together is a learning process, so I’m open to any feedback and ask for your support as I develop them. I’ll be posting the next episode over the weekend.

This was produced with support by a grant from the Toshiba International Foundation.