7 thoughts on “A Big Little Idea Called Legibility

  1. So, I read this (only once) luckily the forest vs monoculture picture helps me to get at least a grip on understanding the bigger picture. I even read the comments…. I realized when reading the comments that Venkat knows much about many things that I am in ignorance of, I find myself straining to keep up.
    I loved the one comment by Kay. Venkat states in response ” I don’t entirely understand your comment, but I think you are making two leaps I don’t agree with” I read the comment and not only did I not “entirely” understand it I realized when I was finished reading I was ‘entirely’ confused.:) I was impressed that Venkat could comment on a comment he didn’t entirely understand but yet could see the writer was leaping in the wrong direction.:)

    I am again amazed (and grateful) at the variety of things that you manage to find and sort through and put out for your audience to read. I continue to challenge myself with the reading and expand my horizons with your ‘finds’. Thank you

    1. James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like the State” is difficult reading, but it is helpful for understand aspects of the world that have such a part of the environment that they have become invisible to us. If memory serves, he starts the book talking about surnames. If you are part of a small community of 150 or so people, the name John is probably enough. As communities grow, you might need some kind of modifier John the Potter; John of Arc; John, son of Donald or John McDonald.

      The state needs specificity and it needs to plan ahead. So, it is not enough to fix a system of surnames to given names. It’ll start creating documentation to create increasing legibility. So, you’ll have John Potter, son of X and Y, with a birth certificate. The state creates a calendar to fix the time of birth and a specific age. It creates streets, names them, and adds numbers to specific locations and it marks off the geography. All of which is to serve one of the states purposes, being able to levy taxes on specific individuals and come up with a tax system on the land.

      And he has a bunch of examples of the state’s will to legibility, such as how the scientific forestry of 17th Century Germany and monoculture agriculture was born of trying to be able to be able to predict timber production, and it had unanticipated consequences such as undercutting the fertility of old growth forests and eliminated the commons, which served as an important source of nutrition for the local population. It’s all of a piece, but it’s been the case for so long now that we don’t remember what it was like before these innovations. I guess a modern equivalent will be when there are no longer any people that remember life before there were home computers, the Internet and “smart phones”. It’ll be something that will be hard for people of that future time to imagine.

      I took a look at Kay’s comment. She seems to be saying that the map is not the territory, and the project of legibility itself is undercut by the fact the world is in a constant state of change and perhaps we are ascribing too much intent to the state. It’s easy to see how we get to birth certificates organically without there being some unwholesome tendencies on the part of the state. She adds a little bullshit in there to make it sound good, although it’s possible that’s just stuff I don’t understand. Feels more like bullshit to me than she’d swimming in the deep.

      Venkat seems to be taking issue with her complexity undermines legibility argument. Just because it is a map doesn’t mean it has to simple, accurate or understandable. Arguably, greater legibility necessarily implies more complexity. Regular Google Maps is doing something different than the satellite overlay. Whether they are good for a purpose depends on the purpose.

      His other point is that just because government is bloated and ineffective at what it is trying to do, doesn’t mean it is bad. Does anyone want more efficient Nazis feeding their ovens? There are times when the best government is no government. Friends don’t need formal processes to decide on where to go to dinner and “papers please” policing probably has more negatives than benefits.

      Ribbonfarm is a great blog. If you like it, you might want to take a look at Farnam Street, Overcoming Bias, Paul Graham’s Essays, and Slate Star Codex. All are excellent in different ways.


      1. I finally had a minute to look at these. I signed up for Farnam Street. The other ones looked really good also but I really need to cull the amount of emails coming in.
        Even my WordPress ‘follows’, it all starts to back up. I really like your daily updates and one other person who posts daily. I had to unfollow others. Don’t know if you would remember this but I was starting to feel like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory.:) Couldn’t process everything fast enough….
        Anyway looking forward to getting the Farnam Street updates, it looks right up my alley.

      2. Know the feeling. The Dark Forest effect is driving an uptake in email newsletters and away from my preferred RSS feed. I like to keep email at zero, and it is difficult to do with all these newsletters coming in.

        But, I do the same as with anything else, I go through periods of signing up for a bunch of stuff and then cull down to the most interesting when it gets too much. Do that for a decade or two, and you end up with a pretty good stream of stuff coming in.

        “I Love Lucy” ended in 1957, but I think everyone knows that episode. Looking it up, it’s been in off-network syndication since 1967 and currently still shows on the Hallmark channel in the U.S. Pretty amazing, especially when you consider the anti-miscegenation bias at the time.

      3. went down the rabbit hole of the “Deep Forest Effect” sometimes it seems I spend as much time trying to navigate and keep up in the virtual world as I do in what we call reality. I will not even admit how many emails are awaiting my dispatch.:)
        I wrote a poem last night that was inspired by some photographs I took yesterday. I am thinking of including the words in your tag line.
        “no hope, no despair” I hope that is OK. I find the words both sad and hopeful at the same time…..and open too much interpretation.

      4. I will put the whole quote at the beginning “Write a little everyday, without hope, without despair” with her credit. It is a perfect quote that I would not have known without seeing it on your blog everyday and spending time considering it. Thanks.

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