Why is this interesting? - Friday, April 25

On bureaucracy, models, and Seeing Like a State

Guest Buzz Andersen is an interesting builder on the internet (and has been for some time, with stints at Apple, Square, Tumblr, and more) but has also emerged as an important and moral voice in technology’s evolution. He’s an incredible twitter follow and I always feel smarter for having interacted with him. This one gets deep and it is worth it. Here goes 6 AM team! - Colin (CJN)

Buzz here. If I told you one of the best books I’ve read in years begins with an extended discussion of 18th century European forestry, you would be forgiven for thinking that didn’t sound like a very promising endorsement. I felt the same way when a friend recommended James C. Scott’s Seeing Like A State to me, but I’m glad I stuck with it because I now consider the book a personal touchstone.

Scott is a political science professor at Yale, but his work is deeply informed by anthropological research (he has done ethnographic field work in Southeast Asia) and a keen interest in the history of agriculture (he and his wife raise sheep in rural Connecticut). He opens Seeing Like A State not with a heady review of Hobbes, Locke, or Kant, but rather with scholarly disquisitions on scientific forestry in 18th Century Prussia and cadastral mapping in 17th Century France. While the approach feels academic initially, the outlines of a compelling thesis soon emerge from the profusion of detail. In order to manage resources, run large bureaucracies, and effectively tax their citizens, states must develop ways of making their domains “legible” to central managers. This inevitably involves creating simplified models from which to operate, lest state administrators end up like Borges’s fabled geographers, whose obsession with exactitude led them to create maps the size of whole territories. Such abstractions, however, not only inevitably fail to convey the complex nuances of reality on the ground, they actually tend to reshape the very social processes they intend to model. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” if you will.

Thus, Prussian foresters seeking to maximize wood yield and ease bureaucratic accounting planted neatly ordered row after neatly ordered row of uniform tree species—a technique that produced banner results for one generation, and then devastation later as the unexpectedly complex forest ecosystem collapsed. Similarly, 17th Century French surveyors, seeking to simplify the process of royal taxation, disrupted complex local customs and created entirely new classes of winners and losers by forcing land usage into a mapping scheme that ignored nuances of place and failed to accurately reflect agricultural practice. In making society more “legible” to centralized managers, Scott asserts in example after example, the state frequently obliterates local knowledge and practice, ignores critical context, and imposes harmful monocultures.

Why is this interesting?

It is when this tendency is coupled with modern scientific hubris that it reaches its most dangerous form. At its core, Seeing Like A State is an assault on “authoritarian high modernism”—a faith whose patron saints, as identified by Scott, include “Henri Comte de Saint-Simon, Le Corbusier, Walter Rathenau, Robert McNamara, Robert Moses, Jean Monnet, the Shah of Iran, David Lilienthal, Vladimir I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Julius Nyerere.” The German foresters and French surveyors were, at the end of the day, simply looking for ways to make the chores of bureaucracy easier. Their 20th Century counterparts, by contrast, tended to be of a less pragmatic cast—rationalist ideologues driven by a messianic desire to remake society from first principles, and to impose upon it an aesthetic order. In this respect, it’s easy to draw parallels to the sort of Silicon Valley utopianism exemplified by deeply flawed CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, whose unquestioning belief in the technopoly has produced powerful products that are reshaping the world in decidedly un-utopian ways.

I would argue that Seeing Like A State belongs to a tradition of modern political philosophy that emphasizes pragmatism, pluralism, and real world observation over ivory tower ideology—“the political, not the metaphysical,” to paraphrase philosopher John Rawls. Another notable exponent of this approach is philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, whose thinking, as described in a recent New Yorker profile, holds that:

...we shouldn’t commit ourselves to an ideal system of any sort, whether socialist or libertarian, because a model set in motion like a Swiss watch will become a trap as soon as circumstances change. Instead, we must be flexible. We must remain alert. We must solve problems collaboratively, in the moment, using society’s ears and eyes and the best tools that we can find.

In a similar vein, Scott concludes Seeing Like A State with an argument for what he calls “métis”—a mode of knowledge that respects intuition, experience, local practice, and case-by-case reasoning in contrast to the scientific imperiousness of high modernism. As a counterpoint to Prussian forestry, for example, Scott offers the Japanese approach to erosion management—a complex ongoing dialog between forester and forest in which “no more is attempted than Nature has already done in the region.” Japanese forestry, Scott explains, is always about “the art of one valley”—about engaging with the specifics and changing dynamics of individual situations rather than dealing in broad generalizations based on reductionist models, grand theories, or ideological visions. Such humility may not be the stuff of stirring manifestos, but lasting progress, as Scott shows, requires us to confront the world as it is—not merely as we wish it to be. (BA)

Cartoon of the Day:

Thought Colin might appreciate this cartoon from the latest New Yorker. (NRB)

Quick Links:

  • One of my favorite articles on the competing utopian/dystopian vision in technology is a book review by Adam Gopnik from 2011. In it he offers up three categories of tech thinkers: “The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others–that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.” Since reading that I’ve proudly considered myself an “ever-waser”. (NRB)

  • Another companion link: I recently read Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. While I have found other Postman writing a bit overly moralized and alarmist, this felt like a pretty balanced case for an “ever-waser” approach to technology. “... we are currently surrounded by throngs of zealous Theuths, one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo. We might call such people Technophiles. They gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future.” (NRB)

  • In case you want to get mad about the Sackler family’s role in the opioid crisis, here’s Patrick Radden Keene on the New Yorker Politics and More podcast telling the story again. (As always, a suggestion to read Radden Keefe’s original 2017 New Yorker piece on the Sackler clan.) (NRB)

  • When it comes to modern espionage Bogota is the new Vienna. (CJN)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Buzz (BA)