“The despot is not a man. It is the Plan. The correct, realistic, exact plan, the one that will provide your solution once the problem has been posited clearly, in its entirety, in its indispensable harmony. This plan has been drawn up well away from the frenzy in the mayor’s office or the town hall, from the cries of the electorate or the laments of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds. It has taken account of nothing but human truths. It has ignored all current regulations, all existing usages, and channels. It has not considered whether or not it could be carried out with the constitution now in force. It is a biological creation destined for human beings and capable of realization by modern techniques.”
Welcome back to another episode of Made You Think! In this episode, Nat and Neil are joined by Adil Majid to discuss their key takeaways from Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott. This book discusses how states seek to make the territory more legible in order to guide its functioning. However, this planned social order often disregards vital features of any real, functioning social order. How do certain schemes to improve the human condition end up failing?
We cover a wide range of topics including:
1:04 Today we’re joined by Adil Majid (previously in episodes #7, #33, #34, #35, #71, #74) to cover Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott. There’s often an assumption that it’s the fault of the people when planned systems fail, when really it’s the fault of the governing body implementing these rigid systems.
5:58 There are a few major concepts in the book. One of these main concepts is legibility. A state needs to understand what’s happening on the ground and also needs a way to measure it. Scientific forestry as a way to produce timber more efficiently.
11:56 “Thus, plants that are valued become “crops,” the species that compete with them are stigmatized as “weeds,” and the insects that ingest them are stigmatized as “pests.””
Scott argues that there’s more variables than any of the high modernists can understand. A high modernist cannot acknowledge that there are more variables than they know, and that they are not in full control of those variables. You can’t adjust one variable and be able to fully predict all the effects.
15:01 One of the mistakes of the high modernist desire for legibility is confusing the visual external order with internal underlying order and structure. Things can have a deep sensible underlying order that doesn’t make sense from the outside. Trees as an example; The distribution of roots, stems, and leaves is efficient in capturing light and water but if a human designed a tree, it may look real different. This same idea can be applied to cities.
17:10 The systemization of last names.
19:48 There are consequences of implementing these rigid systems. Many times, the systems put in place end up changing the exact thing that they’re supposed to regulate.
21:31 The government uses legibility to make things easier to understand, and it’s how they gain control. The amount of control you have can depend on how many levels are within your system. This ties into Extreme Ownership where the military has different levels of hierarchy, but on the ground, you get a lot of individual freedom to execute the mission. If you try to maintain strict order all the way down, things can go poorly. If you allow things to spread out and have variation at the ends, the system tends to be more resilient.
25:11 Authoritarianism is high modernism without feedback loops and democracy is high modernism with feedback loops. Adil describes metis (local knowledge) and techne (mathematical absolute truths). Things naturally float to the top, and you have to fight to keep the local knowledge at the local level.
29:10 High modernism is suitable for techne. You need to have these slightly chaotic systems where you can experiment and fail in order to better develop. The beauty of the local knowledge is that it’s experimental. Feedback loops and being able to adapt.
34:11 How did our five senses evolve to be the way they are? Our visual life is very stimulating. We lock on to things that are bright, surprising, fast-paced. Screens give us so much of that novelty that other things can appear boring to look at.
39:18 The book talks about grouping people, and they lose their individual characteristics by being dropped in the buckets based on non-representative characteristics. The map vs. the terrain.
43:08 The infinite coastline. The more you zoom into it, the more you have to add variations which makes it longer and longer. Theoretically as you zoom into something so deeply, you have an infinitely long coastline. Nat, Neil, and Adil discuss: What are the implications of higher fidelity?
46:30 High modernism works if you can convince people it’s the best way forward. The element of authoritarianism; the more you try to force people to go along with an idea the more negative pushback you’ll get. The recycling and no smoking movements.
51:37 Complex systems can get wrecked by very small changes. Some systems need every moving part in order to run efficiently, and just the absence of one part can throw the system for a loop.
55:22 Adding chips to farm equipment. What was the efficiency improvement? These highly industrialized systems can be good at increasing output, but one little ding in the system and it can fall apart.
1:03:45 India and their legibility efforts. Neil talks about the national ID card for banking and other purposes. A lot of underground stuff goes on in order for people to avoid getting their ID card. The government has gone as far as banning the largest paper currency note overnight and issuing a new one in hopes to get people to go to a bank to switch it or deposit it.
1:08:58 Would India be a country if the British had never come there? India was originally made up of hundreds of individual states, so there are many regional identities still today.
1:11:17 National languages and global languages: How do they come to be, and is it even possible to change them now that they’re established?
1:14:48 During Covid, people in India who moved to cities for jobs ended up moving back to their villages as the cost of living wasn’t worth it. Within the village is their support system. This move from a legible system back to an illegible system is a good thing for the individual, but not necessarily for a government that wants more legibility.
1:17:27 Nat summarizes the core ideas of the book. Highly authoritarian states such as China and North Korea and censorship on the internet. How North Korea has been so authoritarian for so long and has been able to keep it that way.
1:21:35 Work-to-rule: This is where employees do just the minimum that is required from them and follow all regulation and safety guidelines. This in turn can lead to a decrease in productivity as workers are no longer working during weekends, breaks, etc.
1:23:31 How does this book tie back into crypto? A lot of the early crypto crowd is inherently anti-legibility.
1:32:42 Stepn is a lifestyle app that encourages its users to “move-to-earn”. Nat shares 3 ways you can tell that it’s time to exit the project so you don’t lose your investment.
1:39:20 Thanks for listening! Got any book suggestions for a future episode? Hit us up on Twitter!
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Thanks for listening. See you next time!