James C. Scott’s fascinating and seminal book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, examines how, across dozens of domains, ranging from agriculture and forestry, to urban planning and census-taking, a very predictable failure pattern keeps recurring. [He uses pictures to] graphically and literally illustrate the central concept in this failure pattern, an idea called “legibility.”
Scott calls the thinking style behind the failure mode “authoritarian high modernism,” but as we’ll see, the failure mode is not limited to the brief intellectual reign of high modernism (roughly, the first half of the twentieth century).
Here is the recipe:
- Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city
- Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
- Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
- Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
- Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality
- Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary
- Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly
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 deep failure in thinking lies is the mistaken assumption that thriving, successful and functional realities must necessarily be legible.