Legibility

concept from James Scott

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_C._Scott

  • his Seeing Like A State book from 1998 - ISBN:0300078153 - i]n each case, the necessarily thin, schematic Model of social organization and production animating the planning was inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a successful social order. By themselves, the simplified rules can never generate a functioning community, city, or economy. Formal order, to be more explicit, is always and to some degree parasitic on informal processes, which the formal scheme does not recognize, without which it could not exist, and which it alone cannot create or maintain.

  • review by Brad De Long.

  • review by Henry Farrell

  • Jul'2010 post by Venkatesh Rao. The big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.” We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility... "The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion."... The bewilderingly illegible geography of time in the 18th century, while it served a lot of local purposes very well (and much better than even the best Standard Time Atomic Clock-s of today), would have made modern global infrastructure, ranging from the railroads (the original driver for temporal discipline in the United States) to airlines and the Internet, impossible... The failure pattern is perhaps most evident in Urban Planning, a domain which seems to attract the worst of these reformers... The second (non-Scott) example is Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I am slowly reading right now (I think it is going to be my personal Mount Everest; I expect to summit in 2013). Perhaps no other civilization, either in antiquity or today, was so fond of legible and governable social realities. I haven’t yet made up my mind, but reading the history through the lens of Scott’s ideas, I think there is strong case to be made that the fall of the Roman empire was a large-scale instance of the legibility-failure pattern. Like the British Empire 1700 years later, the Romans did try to understand the illegible societies they encountered, but their failure in this effort ultimately led to the fall of the empire.

  • Sept'2010 essay by Scott. To follow the progress of state-making is, among other things, to trace the elaboration and application of novel systems which name and classify places, roads, people, and, above all, property. These state projects of legibility overlay, and often supersede, local practices. Where local practices persist, they are typically relevant to a narrower and narrower range of interaction within the confines of a face-to-face community... To follow the process of state-making, then, is to follow the conquest of illegibility. I think this is really about BigWorld and its tendency to try and paper over Complexity.


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