A Big Little Idea Called Legibility

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.  The pictures below, from the book (used with permission from the author) graphically and literally illustrate the central concept in this failure pattern, an idea called “legibility.”

States and large organizations exhibit this pattern of behavior most dramatically, but individuals frequently exhibit it in their private lives as well.

Along with books like Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization, Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we Live By, William Whyte’s The Organization Man and Keith Johnstone’s Impro, this book is one of the anchor texts for this blog. If I ever teach a course on ‘Ribbonfarmesque Thinking,’ all these books would be required reading. Continuing my series on complex and dense books that I cite often, but are too difficult to review or summarize, here is a quick introduction to the main idea.

The Authoritarian High-Modernist Recipe for Failure

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.

Legibility and Control

Central to Scott’s thesis is the idea of legibility. He explains how he stumbled across the idea while researching efforts by nation states to settle or “sedentarize” nomads, pastoralists, gypsies and other peoples living non-mainstream lives:

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.  Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft. The pre-modern state was, in many crucial respects, particularly blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed “map” of its terrain and its people.

The book is about the 2-3 century long process by which modern states reorganized the societies they governed, to make them more legible to the apparatus of governance. The state is not actually interested in the rich functional structure and complex behavior of the very organic entities that it governs (and indeed, is part of, rather than “above”). It merely views them as resources that must be organized in order to yield optimal returns according to a centralized, narrow, and strictly utilitarian logic. The attempt to maximize returns need not arise from the grasping greed of a predatory state. In fact, the dynamic is most often driven by a genuine desire to improve the lot of the people, on the part of governments with a popular, left-of-center mandate. Hence the subtitle (don’t jump to the conclusion that this is a simplistic anti-big-government conservative/libertarian view though; this failure mode is ideology-neutral, since it arises from a flawed pattern of reasoning rather than values).

The book begins with an early example, “scientific” forestry (illustrated in the picture above). 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.

The picture is not an exception, and the word “legibility” is not a metaphor; the actual visual/textual sense of the word (as in “readability”) is what is meant. The book is full of thought-provoking pictures like this: farmland neatly divided up into squares versus farmland that is confusing to the eye, but conforms to the constraints of local topography, soil quality, and hydrological patterns; rational and unlivable grid-cities like Brasilia, versus chaotic and alive cities like Sao Paolo. This might explain, by the way, why I resonated so strongly with the book.  The name “ribbonfarm” is inspired by the history of the geography of Detroit and its roots in “ribbon farms” (see my About page and the historic picture of Detroit ribbon farms below).

High-modernist (think Bauhaus and Le Corbusier) aesthetics necessarily lead to simplification, since a reality that serves many purposes presents itself as illegible to a vision informed by a singular purpose. Any elements that are non-functional with respect to the singular purpose tend to confuse, and are therefore eliminated during the attempt to “rationalize.” The deep failure in thinking lies is the mistaken assumption that thriving, successful and functional realities must necessarily be legible. Or at least more legible to the all-seeing statist eye in the sky (many of the pictures in the book are literally aerial views) than to the local, embedded, eye on the ground.

Complex realities turn this logic on its head; it is easier to comprehend the whole by walking among the trees, absorbing the gestalt, and becoming a holographic/fractal part of the forest, than by hovering above it.

This  imposed simplification, in service of legibility to the state’s eye, makes the rich reality brittle, and failure  follows. The imagined improvements are not realized. The metaphors of killing the golden goose, and the Procrustean bed come to mind.

The Psychology of Legibility

I suspect that what tempts us into this failure is that legibility quells the anxieties evoked by apparent chaos. There is more than mere stupidity at work.

In Mind Wide Open, Steven Johnson’s entertaining story of his experiences subjecting himself to all sorts of medical scanning technologies, he describes his experience with getting an fMRI scan. Johnson tells the researcher that perhaps they should start by examining his brain’s baseline reaction to meaningless stimuli. He naively suggests a white-noise pattern as the right starter image. The researcher patiently informs him that subjects’ brains tend to go crazy when a white noise (high Shannon entropy) pattern is presented. The brain goes nuts trying to find order in the chaos. Instead, the researcher says, they usually start with something like a black-and-white checkerboard pattern.

If my conjecture is correct, then the High Modernist failure-through-legibility-seeking formula is a large scale effect of the rationalization of the fear of (apparent) chaos.

[Techie aside: Complex realities look like Shannon white noise, but in terms of deeper structure, their Kolmogorov-Chaitin complexity is low relative to their Shannon entropy; they are like pseudo-random numbers or π, rather than real random numbers; I wrote a two-part series on this long ago, that I meant to continue, but never did].

The Fertility of the Idea

The idea may seem simple (though it is surprisingly hard to find words to express it succinctly), but it is an extraordinarily fertile one, and helps explain all sorts of things. One of my favorite unexpected examples from the book is the “rationalization” of people names in the Philippines under Spanish rule (I won’t spoil it for you; read the book). In general, any aspect of a complex folkway, in the sense of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, can be made a victim of the high-modernist authoritarian failure formula.

The process doesn’t always lead to unmitigated disaster. In some of the more redeeming examples, there is merely a shift in a balance of power between more global and more local interests. For example, we owe to this high-modernist formula the creation of a systematic, global scheme for measuring time, with sensible time zones. 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 atomic clocks 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 Napoleanic era saw the spread of the metric system; again an idea that is highly rational from a centralized bird’s eye view, but often stupid with respect to the subtle local adaptions of  the systems it displaced. Again this displaced a good deal of local power and value, and created many injustices and local irrationalities, but the shift brought with it the benefits of improved communication and wide-area commerce.

In all these cases, you could argue that the formula merely replaced a set of locally optimal modes of social organization with a globally optimal one. But that would be missing the point. The reason the formula is generally dangerous, and a  formula for failure, is that it does not operate by a thoughtful consideration of local/global tradeoffs, but through the imposition of a singular view as “best for all” in a pseudo-scientific sense. The high-modernist reformer does not acknowledge (and often genuinely does not understand) that he/she is engineering a shift in optima and power, with costs as well as benefits. Instead, the process is driven by a naive “best for everybody” paternalism, that genuinely intends to improve the lives of the people it affects. The high-modernist reformer is driven by a naive-scientific Utopian vision that does not tolerate dissent, because it believes it is dealing in scientific truths.

The failure pattern is perhaps most evident in urban planning, a domain which seems to attract the worst of these reformers. A generation of planners, inspired by the crazed visions of Le Corbusier, created unlivable urban infrastructure around the world, from Braslia to Chandigarh. These cities end up with deserted empty centers populated only by the government workers forced to live there in misery (there is even a condition known as “Brasilitis” apparently), with slums and shanty towns emerging on the periphery of the planned center; ad hoc, bottom-up, re-humanizing damage control as it were. The book summarizes a very elegant critique of this approach to urban planning, and the true richness of what it displaces, due to Jane Jacobs.

Applying the Idea

Going beyond the book’s own examples, the ideas shed a whole new light on other stories/ideas. Two examples from my own reading should suffice.

The first is a book I read several years back, by Nicholas Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, which made the argument (originally proposed by the orientalist Bernard Cohn), that caste in the sense of the highly rigid and oppressive, 4-varna scheme was the result of the British failing to understand a complex social reality, and imposing on it their own simplistic understanding of it (the British Raj is sometimes called the “anthropological state” due to the obsessive care it took to document, codify and re-impose as a simplified, rigidified, Procrustean prescription, the social structure of pre-colonial India).  The argument of the book — obviously one that appeals to Indians (we like to blame the British or Islam when we can) — is that the original reality was a complex, functional social scheme, which the British turned into a rigid and oppressive machine by attempting to make it legible and governable. While I still don’t know whether the argument is justified, and whether the caste system before the British was as benevolent as the most ardent champions of this view make it out to be, the point here is that if it is true, Scott’s failure model would describe it perfectly.

The second 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 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.

Aside: if you decide to attempt Mount Everest along with me, take some time to explore the different editions of Gibbon available; I am reading a $0.99 19th century edition on my Kindle — all six volumes with annotations and comments from a decidedly pious — and critical — Christian editor. Sometimes I don’t know why I commit these acts of large-scale intellectual masochism.  The link is to a modern, abridged Penguin edition.

Is the Model Relevant Today?

The phrase “high-modernist authoritarianism” might suggest that the views in this book only apply to those laughably optimistic, high-on-science-and-engineering high modernists of the 1930s. Surely we don’t fail in these dumb ways in our enlightened postmodern times?

Sadly, we do, for four reasons:

  1. There is a decades-long time lag between the intellectual high-watermark of an ideology and the last of its effects
  2. There are large parts of the world, China in particular, where authoritarian high-modernism gets a visa, but postmodernism does not
  3. Perhaps most important: though this failure mode is easiest to describe in terms of high-modernist ideology, it is actually a basic failure mode for human thought that is time and ideology neutral. If it is true that the Romans and British managed to fail in these ways, so can the most postmodern Obama types. The language will be different, that’s all.
  4. And no, the currently popular “pave the cowpaths” and behavioral-economic “choice architecture” design philosophies do not provide immunity against these failure modes. In fact paving the cowpaths in naive ways is an instance of this failure mode (the way to avoid it would be to choose to not pave certain cowpaths). Choice architecture (described as “Libertarian Paternalism” by its advocates) seems to merely dress up authoritarian high-modernism with a thin coat of caution and empirical experimentation. The basic and dangerous “I am more scientific/rational than thou” paternalism is still the central dogma.

[Another Techie aside: For the technologists among you, a quick (and very crude) calibration point should help: we are talking about the big brother of waterfall planning here. The psychology is very similar to the urge to throw legacy software away. In fact Joel Spolsky’s post on the subject Things You Should Never Do, Part I, reads like a narrower version of Scott’s arguments. But Scott’s model is much deeper, more robust, more subtly argued, and more broadly applicable.  I haven’t yet thought it through, but I don’t think lean/agile software development can actually mitigate this failure mode anymore than choice architecture can mitigate it in public policy]

So do yourself a favor and read the book, even if it takes you months to get through. You will elevate your thinking about big questions.

High-Modernist Authoritarianism in Corporate and Personal Life

The application of these ideas in the personal/corporate domains actually interests me the most. Though Scott’s book is set within the context of public policy and governance, you can find exactly the same pattern in individual and corporate behavior. Individuals lacking the capacity for rich introspection apply dumb 12-step formulas to their lives and fail. Corporations: well, read the Gervais Principle series and Images of Organization. As a point of historical interest, Scott notes that the Soviet planning model, responsible for many spectacular legibility-failures, was derived from corporate Taylorist precedents, which Lenin initially criticized, but later modified and embraced.

Final postscript: these ideas have strongly influenced my book project, and apparently, I’ve been thinking about them for a long time without realizing it. A very early post on this blog (I think only a handful of you were around when I posted it), on the Harry Potter series and its relation to my own work in robotics, contains some of these ideas. If I’d read this book before, that post would have been much better.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I think the problem is even much more general than that, it is the (quasi?) religious belief in the “one right answer” to every question (The Truth).
    This calls for the Mencken quote which you and I already cited :
    “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

    Anyway, kudos Venkat you are a goldmine, most especially for a lazy dabbler in intellectual matters like me it’s always a pleasure to have someone else doing the hard work of collecting the reference material.

  2. This sounds like a fascinating book and I definitely look forward to reading it. This leads me to a similar realization that I’ve only recently been able to articulate. There seems to be a curious blind spot in our literature to the topics of ignorance, stupidity & error. It’s something I’ve been fascinated by for quite a while but it’s only been recently that I’ve been carefully curating a list of the books that deal with this topic. So far, it seems like the sum of published knowledge on these topics would fit in a very small box.

    I don’t quite know why it is that this topic has received so little attention. To me, it’s an equally important and fertile area of exploration as the study of wisdom, knowledge & insight for which there is voluminous writing.

    I think in order to think truly illegibly, you need to be familiar & comfortable with dealing with ignorance, stupidity & error and this is just not something which has made many inroads into modern thought.

    • Yes, the study of stupidity and ignorance requires a particular irreverent and skeptical attitude that historically has mostly been the preserve of jesters and comedians. I think people who study things seriously, end up taking themselves too seriously, and that blinds them to 80% of the varieties of human stupidity. So studying stupidity seriously is almost a contradiction in terms.

      I’d have called behavioral economics the study of stupidity two years ago, but now I am inclined to call it ‘high modernist authoritarianism’ in its own right… they insist on seeing human beings through the lens of their own narrow and legible model of calculative rationality.

      They’ve shed SOME light on certain kinds of stupidity though.


    • Fellow lazy intellectual says

      Hi! Could you share those references on stupidity please?


  3. An interesting and concise read on a illegible topic ;-) , i enjoyed this thoroughly. Do you think the paternalistic inclinations of the worlds benevolent leaders ever consider that some of societies systems just don’t scale naturally, legible or not? Is legibility required for a system to scale?

    • Is legibility required for scale?

      Hmm… the successor to the highly legible Roman empire was the Byzantine (or ‘Eastern Roman’) empire. It is perhaps revealing that in our time, ‘byzantine’ has become an adjective denoting illegibility. The empire was, for a while, nearly as large as the old Roman empire. Arguably, it lasted longer.

      Are there systems that don’t scale? Well of course. I don’t know if legibility is correlated to scalability though. I’ll have to think about it. I suspect it relates to what exactly you are trying to scale. The Twitter empire is highly legible, and that is necessary for its particular model of scaling. Facebook is starting look byzantine in complexity. Google already is.


      • As it happens, I’m reading Edward Luttwak’s _Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire_. (I think you’d like it a bit.)

        What’s interesting is all the mixtures of legibility and illegibility, although Luttwak never uses those terms or concepts

        – The taxation system was *highly* legible – as Luttwak describes it, the total sum to be raised was set in the beginning and then divided up by themata, then by regions and individual cities and villages. Little allowance was made for annual variation based on weather or attacks, except by special imperial dispensation. A harsh but very efficient system.
        – The foreign alliances were highly illegible, often based on secret diplomacy, the Byzantines abandoning alliances the moment the ally ceased to be useful in attacking other threats, sometimes the Byzantines would raze a former close ally like Bulgaria
        – The ceremonies and addresses were highly legible, the manuals containing the exact speeches people would make to each other, and describing exactly how letters and official communications should be addressed and how much gold attached, with subtle reminders of relative status involved (like in the communications addressed to the rival Pope in Rome – the official address included questions inquiring as to the Princeps of Rome’s health, despite the Princeps being many centuries gone); similarly, military commands were highly codified and stable, with many orders being spoken in Latin, despite the Byzantine Empire speaking Greek for close to a millennium at some points. Ranks were another mix of legible and illegible; there were a great many, and they represented a lure for barbarian chiefs, yet while they often came with pensions/sinecures, the real power was hidden in court intrigues (that part of Byzantine reputation is deserved).
        – Tactics and strategy were illegible; Belisarius is considered one of the Great Captains for his mastery of indirect strategy and tactics, and the Byzantines in general avoided fighting as much as possible. When they fought, they had thoroughly adopted barbarian mounted archery tactics (having narrowly survived the invincible Attila, bribing him to attack Westwards instead, and then collectively remaking their army in his compound-bow image).
        – Fortifications were highly legible, the fortifications of Constantinople being deeply impressive, especially the wall-moat-tower systems. Yet, the fortifications were rarely used and Byzantine strategy relied on getting enemies to attack each other, maintaining alliances with barbarians in the current enemy’s rear, or using a fairly extensive espionage system to subvert loyalties.

  4. I wonder if we realize the failure of legibility not so much through a failure of representation – the world outside doesn’t really fit our simplified view of it and our morality accuses the terror of the state machine – but precisely because the state machine itself becomes illegible. The chaos creeps into our nice geometries and turns the “world formula” into an incredible mathematical mess. Our software systems which are resting on safe foundations laid in the 1950s are bloated, ideosyncratic articulations of functionality, no one can overlook and which never coincide with our architecture diagrams. The German tax law has the reputation of being the most complex law ever created and even specialists, not to say politicians, don’t understand it…

    Maybe even the idea of “failure” articulated by Scott owes too much to the decisionist wish of making the world legible as if we had reasons to be optimistic because the high modernist planners failed to achieve their goals. Why taking the planners too seriously and take them by their own words and intentions? When there is a true meta-level then it is one of evolutionary experimentation which has no definite outcome and no goals. The world is cause and effect, not mind and intentionality and then that’s it.

    Maybe that’s not what we want after all. We want a legibility that enjoys our minds. It shall not be too irregular, random and contextual and not too regular and simplistic with a lack of expressiveness. Nothing could be further from definiteness than our enjoyments though.

    • Kay:

      I don’t entirely understand your comment, but I think you are making two leaps I don’t agree with.

      First the legibility of a controlling apparatus is a different beast from the legibility of what is being controlled. In general, if a governed reality is complex, you should EXPECT the governing apparatus to be illegible, full of all sorts of tweaks, adjustments, local exceptions, ugly hacks and the like. I would be worried if that were NOT the case. There is even some theoretical justification (it’s called the ‘internal model principle’ and I am interpreting it philosophically here) that the controller needs to be roughly as complex (in a proportionate sense) as the reality being controlled.

      So I don’t agree that “bloated, obsolete” governance systems are bad. In fact they probably WORK because of their illegibility. This is the same point Spolsky makes about legacy software (viewed as a ‘governance’ system for some controlled work process).

      I think what is troubling you is possibly not the illegibility of governance systems (a good thing, when they govern complex realities), but the illegibility of who they serve. Governance systems are generally only legible to the ‘insider’ bureaucrats who run them, and the special interests that influence them. They may be obsolete and creaking, but they serve the objectives of these two parties very well. They often DON’T serve the needs of the nominal beneficiaries, the “people.” But unlike failure-by-illegibility (the government intending to help the people but not understanding reality well enough to do so), this is failure-by-malice (bureaucrats and special interests understanding the governed reality well enough, and deliberately governing it in their own best interests).

      The first kind of failure (what this post is about) is something that can be mitigated by thinking better. It is an execution failure; the governing intentions are best faith. The second kind requires people to be less self-interested. It is a case of bad-faith abuse of power.


      • Thanks for the clarification. Asymmetric legibility seems to be a relevant concept and one could possibly write down a whole analysis of major philosophical currents throughout the 2nd half of the twentieth century based on it: who wanted to read what and who wanted to become unreadable and asemantic to an extent that control will fail – sort of a semiotic disarmament.

        Notice that I’m not entirely sure about your normative assertions concerning the illegibility of the apparatus. Your pseudo random number analogy used in the article was convincing to me – so why should good approximations to a real phenomenon using simple formalisms ( algorithms ) do not work without cutting too much down? I’m not demanding everything being “more geometrico” but I feel we are arranging ourselves with weak modes of thinking too easily – which also includes Spolsky, whose major argument has always been his own success.

  5. mathieu longtin says

    If you would have grown in Québec, you would have learned in high-school that ribbon farms were the French way of allocating land. You can still see the patterns in some farm land around the province (see link below), each parcel has water access, but is long and narrow as a result.

    When the Brits took over, in 1759, they began allocating land in square parcels, and you can see that in the eastern townships, where British loyalist settled after the US independence.

    Ribbon farms:

    Brittish squares:

  6. The stock market is definitely illegible. If we have trouble understanding the illegible, how can that we surmount that obstacle? How can we develop systems (regulators of stock markets) and controls (risk measurements) that account for legibility? Or, if you don’t like my example, use the example of education standards.

  7. So I just heard about a fun little example of this a few days ago. Many Venture Capital firms are prevented from “recycling” their money from a liquidity event back into the fund for further re-investment. That means if they find an investment opportunity that promises to risk free double their money in a year, it’s a bad investment for them since that money could be more profitable invested in a company that grows for 10% for 10 years.

    Why is recycling prohibited by Venture firms? Because large pension funds want to achieve a certain risk profile and the mathematical formulas they use to calculate risk are not built to take recycling into account. Thus, they cannot invest in a VC firm that wants to practice recycling.


    • I am not sure about this example. Are you sure this is crazy?

      Doesn’t it boil down to “who reinvests the proceeds of a windfall”?

      Either the LPs take their cash-out and decide how they want to reinvest (and PEs and VCs are only one among their choices), or leave the money with the VCs to invest in a narrower asset class. I can see how the LPs could accidentally end up in risk regimes they don’t want, with too much in the VC bucket, if they allow recycling. And since they control so much capital, it makes sense for VCs to accept non recyclable money. In an extreme case, if the rest of the LPs money tanks and the VC investment spirals up, then an LP could end up going from having 5% in VCs to 95%. No money manager would want to delegate that big a spread to managers of a specific asset class.

      What am I getting wrong in this analysis?


  8. I think Venkat it right on this one. I’m sceptical about the 5% -> 95% example, but I can see how that would be important to a pension fund. I think it’s more realistically a case of the LP wanting to retain control of their capital. They probably think something like: “Great, you’ve cashed out, give me the cash and, if you want it back, explain to me what you can do with it.” It may (should) have nothing to do with mathematical models and everything to do with transparency and accountability.

  9. I haven’t even got to the end of the post, but I thought you should meet Dean Bavington. More later. :)


    —Michael B.

  10. Late reply to this one. But I see strong parallels to robotics and especially AI here.

    The field of AI in particular has a very strong bent towards trying to construct human-legible intelligent systems. Their efforts seem to be strongly based on existing mental metaphors, which they have problems breaking away from. The prevailing metaphor for a long time was the computer algorithm, and that turned out to be a dead end. Now the newest (or “newest”) one is neural networks, which what they have toyed around with for the last decade or two without really getting anywhere. Jeff Hawkins talks about this at length in his book “On Intelligence”, which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it.

    I still think Hawkins is missing something, as the new model he proposes is still way too simple compared to organic brains. This is a far cry from solutions typically produced by methods like genetic/memetic algorithms – which by the way themselves are legibilizations (hows that for a word?) of a natural process. Genetically “found” solutions tend to be extremely messy and highly specialized, but also typically the most effective by far.

    Another parallel, also to biology, is the human body itself. Our attempts to understand it, medicate it and replicate it is one of getting the large parts right, but missing the “long tail” of complexities and interactions. There’s probably not a single chemical substance found in the body (or a single gene in the human genome) that doesn’t serve at least half a dozen purposes. No human would design a body this way.

  11. You are right, everybodyis “missing something” about AI for the very simple reason that the definition of intelligence doesn’t really exist, so much for creating an artificial one.
    OTOH just as the planes flight has little to do with birds flight there is no reason to suppose that AI will closely mimic human intelligence not that it will resemble “messy” solutions brought up by evolution or genetic algorithms.
    My own take on AI is that, as opposed to rational/mathematical approaches, the key to AI isn’t problem solving but concepts formation, i.e. building up ontologies upon which you can afterward exercise your problem solving abilities.
    This raise the interesting problem that concepts and ontologies are in no way absolute but always depends on the situation and motives of the observer and may even shift an fluctuate with time for the very same observer, furthermore all ontologies loosely relate and overlap with each other without ever truly matching, viz the impossibility of exact natural languages translation or ontologies reconciliation.

    To resume, intelligence isn’t about proving but about probing (the presence or such or such object or quality).
    Strong AI will not be borne out of mathematics nor physics, if ever…

  12. I just had a bit of brainstorm on AI.

    A few years ago I was in a college biopsychology class and had a bit of a eureka moment: I think one of the reasons our intelligence developed is because we, unlike most animals, aren’t born knowing how to use our own bodies.

    Basically, each person has to learn how to work his or her body which translates into having to learn how to learn. From there we’ve got a massive edge on neurogenesis compared to animals who have everything pre-wried.

    The trick to something like AI would be to create the same kind of conditions. Naturally, we have a major advantage in a few hundred million years worth of brain-evolution before starting to build a neocortex. But if we want to build something that replicates our style of cognition we need to build similar processes into it.

    So we don’t so much need to build a fully functional AI as we need to build something with a remedial level of self-consciousness and the ability to write new code for itself on the fly.

    It’s probably too crude to be of much practical use and doesn’t get anyone any closer to actually making AI since we still don’t have the slightest clue what self-consciousness is let alone how to make it ourselves. But it’s only a matter of time before neuroscience figures it out. Maybe even in our lifetime.

  13. But it’s only a matter of time before neuroscience figures it out. Maybe even in our lifetime.

    Most probably not and self-consciousness is irrelevant to AI, see arguments pro and con at Anissimov’s blog.

    Yet the ability to write new code for itself on the fly is obviously a prerequisite but this is only called “reflection” not consciousness.

    • Kev,

      To clarify: When I said self-consciousness I meant in the most basic sense. A thing which knows it exists.

      From my own study of neuroscience, I think they’re getting closer all the time and it won’t take that long (50 years? 100 years? I don’t know what a meaningful estimate would be) to actually combine all the crazy little details into a big picture. It looks kind of crap now but it’s only been a serious field since the fMRI machine was invented around 20 years ago. What science does anything super-useful in it’s first 20 years?

      Is emotion necessary? No clue. Is self-awareness an emotion? No clue. I still haven’t heard or read a definition of emotion that looked definitive to me.

      The bottom line is I’m speculating WAY out of my range here. I haven’t touched AI theory in almost a decade and didn’t understand shit then.

      I’m just figuring the baseline for “Artificial Intelligence” is “Something created that knows it exists and make meaningful changes to how it operates.”

      • Steve: sounds like you are talking about variability selection theory in combination with neoteny.

        The idea of basing a model of intelligence on that seems fundamentally sound to me. In the same sense that it is far easier to understand the physical structure of the human body in terms of stem cells+ontogenic processes of subdivision and differentiation, than via a detailed map of the adult body. Kinda like understanding a dynamic system in terms of its differential equation and initial conditions, instead of in terms of its explicit solution.

        I’d ask: what is the equivalent of “stem cells” for the development of intelligence? What dynamics shape its growth?

        The starting point is of course William James’ idea of the child brain as “blooming buzzing confusion” and the separation into an “I” and “world.” From there to solving differential equations and discussing Plato should be a continuous progression in complexity and increasingly refined self-models.

        I have a model of this stuff in development, but not for the purpose of thinking about AI…

        • Venkat-

          Do you have any suggestions about where to find information on variability selection theory? My googling gives me a big list about variability within natural selection and I’m not sure if that’s what I’m trying to find.

          The words sounds like what I’m talking about but I’m suspicious of knowledge I have and cannot trace back to a source.

          As for neoteny, I’d describe it as the opposite. One of the biggest differences between a newborn and a 30 year old is the complexity of “software” (I’ve got some doubts to if it’s a valid comparison, but it’ll have to do at the moment).

          IE: The situation of newborns not having fully developed nervous systems forces them to start the process of developing what turns into an adult nervous system.

          Your “stem cell for intelligence” question cuts right to what I was trying to get at. I figure adult intelligence is going to be vastly too complex to simulate, but starting at a much earlier level will probably end up building more workable AIs.

          Presuming all that is possible, one problem I see is organisms have a distinct advantage in terms of being able to build and rebuild our own hardware. Can you even have emerging intelligence with static hardware?

          No clue. Testing it would take a solid lifetime or two of work.

          All that aside I’d like to thank you for doing this blog. It’s always a rare treat finding people who think along similar lines but with more refinement.

  14. Steve Fisher says

    Interesting stuff. I’ll have to add it to my list.

    I almost went to gradschool for something along the lines of biopsychology before realizing I’d rather spend my time playing on the theoretical edge rather than mucking about with stamp collecting.

    Sadly, first I need to sit down good and hard with Mortimer J Adler’s How To Read A Book and integrate it. I’ve spent too much time reading poorly.

  15. Did you read Jane Jacobs also? She is great. (Here from the recent highlights post.)

  16. > becoming a holographic/fractal part of the forest


  17. Thank you – this is an important historical phenomenon, well-explained.
    I’m not sure Brasilia is a great example, since there’s a bit of recent literature that it’s working well now that it’s had some time to mature, because they built in social complexity by deliberately mixing people. Don’t be misled by photography. (Also they built quite a bit of geometric variability into the design of the superquadras, so it’s not as simplified as you might think.) American public housing would be a great example.
    Esperanto would be a good example of authoritarian high-modernism that would be fascinating to discuss. Also Versailles.

  18. Sorry i didn’t read all the comments.

    Having lived in Brasília for 10+ years, i find the whole argument very interesting, enticing really, but utterly uncorrelated with the city as it stands amidst the brazillian equiilavent of savannah.

    Living in Brasília is a rather pleasant experience, in striking contrast to the terrible suffocating unsufferable hell that is your other example, São Paulo. Not only that, Brasilienses seem to share a much bigger appreciation for the chaotic than almost any other people i met anywhere else, i guess because the city frees them from the inertia too much of this ‘metis’ causes.

    Another striking thing is that Brasília is inherently illegible! I kid you not. Example: a very common anti-modernist argument against Brasília is that ‘people don’t walk on the streets’. This is completely untrue. What happens is that pedestrian walking happpens 5 metres away from the roads, in a grass field unbothered by the cars, and foreigners literally don’t see the people because they are so used to looking for them strictly besides the cars.

    The ‘living center’ is alive and well and as chaotic as any other, it’s called South Banking Sector and it also happen to be at almost the geometric centre of the city, but you are not forced to go there if don’t want to, so it goes by as inexistent! The ‘healthy’ peripheric cities are actually crime-ridden. So, it seems, as for Brasília, the high-modernist failure mode was more like Scott trying to impose an abstract reading upon a reality he did not recognize. Exactly the criticism it makes!

    I suppose the very fact you assume there is a ‘complex reality underneath’ pretty much means you are just repeating the mistake at a higher complexity level.

    Of course there are things we do not see! There will always be! And of course we must act before we understand it all! The map is not the territory! Improvise. there is no reason a square can’t be a kind of improvisation, after all.

    • That is brilliant! I’d love to see how the actual way that people live in Brazilia compares to the way they were expected to do.

      There is an irony of writing a book (or a blog post or comment) in large sweeps about the dangers of people working in grand sweeps! Although it can be avoided by limiting your definitive statements to other high level abstractions, for example by analysing the city in the terms it was expected to operate:

      If a planned city-hospital becomes an excellent marketplace, then it has both failed and succeeded. Or perhaps you could say that the designer has failed but the people have succeeded, because he did not construct a structure that fulfilled the needs he expected to fulfill, but the people have found a way to repurpose it to alternate needs. So you can still compare a city to the abstract high level model that was supposed to match it, and falsify the model, even if that gives you little more knowledge of the city.

      Still, personally, I’d rather hear about how it has been made to work!

      • But, you see, i am not completely sure there was a “how they were supposed to live”… In the sense that, of course, if someone had asked Brasília’s architect Lúcio Costa “so how do you expect people to live there?” he would have talked a whole lot about it, and actually probably did, but how much of this plan was cause for his design and how much was just a post-fact rationalization? We’ll never know. I don’t even think it is a very interesting question.

      • But, you see, i am not completely sure there was a “how they were supposed to live”… In the sense that, of course, if someone had asked Brasília’s architect Lúcio Costa “so how do you expect people to live there?” he would have talked a whole lot about it, and actually probably did, but how much of this plan was cause for his design and how much was just a post-fact rationalization? We’ll never know. I don’t even think it is a very interesting question.

        Actually, i don’t think this is a problem with the blog post, but with the book. Brasília-bashing, along with high-modernism-bashing and rationalism-bashing is a boringly common endeavour. This author’s agenda of “valuing resistance” is almost default, actually, in certain circles. And i don’t deny it has some merits… But i also tried more than once to show defendants the irony that they use the subaltern-ity of the people to achieve academic preponderance, and the people i tried where literally incapable of seeing it.

  19. I believe it was Ellen Lupton who, talking about letterforms, says legibility is what you’re used to. (It might actually be readability, type folk have a distinction). That’s why i say Brasília is not legible: only Brasilienses are used to it.

    According to that, high-modernism would be actually guilty of not caring too much for legibility, assuming in the end people would get used to it even if at first it was a very unusual creation.

    The whole blank-slate thing strikes me as a badly formulated question. Of course the present is a blank slate, and of course it is not. It depends on how you wish to read it.

    A commenter on Amazon’s page for Seeing like a state remarks on the resemblance between this Legibility and Burke’s prejudice. This book seems to propose itself as a change-inducing idea, but it’s closest sibling is Burke’s conservatism.

    The whole insistence upon the idea of ‘resistance’ has always, to me looked like a misguided ideology. Of course the peasants will complain. Of course there will be an ‘undercurrent’ that defies the ‘standard script’. This is just competition. It can be quite healthy or quite unhealthy. Even neutral. I suspect Scott’s using it as proof that high-modernism is corrupt and states are bad is totally alien to the realities he addresses. It almost feels to me as a way to exploit those realities.

    We should take legibility as historical process rather than a generic quality. This way something illegible is something you have not got acquinted to yet. Some stuff are easy to, some take more time and effort.

  20. I don’t have the exact Peter Kreeft quote handy, but this piece does a nice job at analyzing the fruits of a deeper spiritual reality i.e. man’s rebellion against God. Kreeft said something along the lines of the ancient world view was God exists, therefore conform to Him. The modern worldview (see Bacon) is, God does not exist, therefore use techne to conform the world to our own designs. Funny thing is, we are not very happy with the new arrangement. Nice work on pulling in analysis on Rome. Thomas Cahill has a good biographical understanding of Gibbon. Basically a combination of overbearing parents and falling in with Voltaire turned him off to Christianity.

  21. satanforce says

    I am very grateful for your recommendation of “Seeing Like a State.” But have you, by chance, read Deleuze’s article, “The Smooth and the Striated ?” (1980 – A Thousand Plateaus)He provides a very good theory that can be seen as a theoretical backgrounder for the applications seen in Scott’s work.

  22. Thank you, this is vastly interesting and informative! There are a couple of weaknesses in this argument – the assumption of failure and/or stupidity being a vehicle of destruction, rather than a vehicle of progress, it could be either, there are the factors of intent and revenge/remorse, and the other – the assumption that status quo is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist unless caused

    Regardless, I must learn from you, thanks for creating Tempo, its on my reading list!