A Big Little Idea Called Legibility

Venkatesh Rao, of ribbonfarm.com, wrote about the idea of states and large organizations frequently imposing “order” on pre-existing chaotic systems, in an effort to improve https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/07/26/a-big-little-idea-called-legibility/.

His primary source is the book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, in which the author, James C. Scott, describes some major social engineering ventures in history that have failed spectacularly.

The early modern state, Germany in this case, was only interested in maximizing tax revenues from forestry. This meant that the acreage, yield and market value of a forest had to be measured, and only these obviously relevant variables were comprehended by the statist mental model. Traditional wild and unruly forests were literally illegible to the state surveyor’s eyes, and this gave birth to “scientific” forestry: the gradual transformation of forests with a rich diversity of species growing wildly and randomly into orderly stands of the highest-yielding varieties. The resulting catastrophes - better recognized these days as the problems of monoculture - were inevitable.

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