Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Author: James C. Scott
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About This Book

An analysis of diverse failures in high-modernist, authoritarian state planning. It covers projects such as collectivization in Russia and the building of Brasilia, arguing that any centrally-managed social plan must recognize the importance of local customs and practical knowledge.

In this wide-ranging and original book, James C. Scott analyzes failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields. Centrally managed social plans misfire, Scott argues, when they impose schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies that are not--and cannot--be fully understood. Further, the success of designs for social organization depends upon the recognition that local, practical knowledge is as important as formal, epistemic knowledge.

The author builds a persuasive case against "development theory" and imperialistic state planning that disregards the values, desires, and objections of its subjects. He identifies and discusses four conditions common to all planning disasters: administrative ordering of nature and society by the state; a "high-modernist ideology" that places confidence in the ability of science to improve every aspect of human life; a willingness to use authoritarian state power to effect large- scale interventions; and a prostrate civil society that cannot effectively resist such plans.


by adolph   2022-09-11
From Ch 1, Seeing Like a State By James C. Scott:

The great simplification of the forest into a "one-commodity machine" was precisely the step that allowed German forestry science to become a rigorous technical and commercial discipline that could be codified and taught. A condition of its rigor was that it severely bracketed, or assumed to be constant, all variables except those bearing directly on the yield of the selected species and on the cost of growing and extracting them. As we shall see with urban planning, revolutionary theory, collectivization, and rural resettlement, a whole world lying "outside the brackets" returned to haunt this technical vision.

In the German case, the negative biological and ultimately commercial consequences of the stripped-down forest became painfully obvious only after the second rotation of conifers had been planted. "It took about one century for them [the negative consequences] to show up clearly. Many of the pure stands grew excellently in the first generation but already showed an amazing retrogression in the second generation. The reason for this is a very complex one and only a simplified explanation can be given.... Then the whole nutrient cycle got out of order and eventually was nearly stopped.... Anyway, the drop of one or two site classes [used for grading the quality of timber] during two or three generations of pure spruce is a well known and frequently observed fact. This represents a production loss of 20 to 30 percent."

A new term, Waldsterben (forest death), entered the German vocabulary to describe the worst cases. An exceptionally complex process involving soil building, nutrient uptake, and symbiotic relations among fungi, insects, mammals, and flora--which were, and still are, not entirely understood--was apparently disrupted, with serious consequences. Most of these consequences can be traced to the radical simplicity of the scientific forest.

by sriku   2021-12-25
I recently started reading the book titled "Seeing like a state: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed" by James C. Scott [1] which talks about how starting with a simplified idea of how to structure a complex system (i.e. a system with many interdependencies) without taking into account details at the ground level end up in disaster.

Using that idea of "legibility" that Scott proposes, not accounting for indigenous "tribal knowledge" in planning for their "betterment" does not work. Common language that reflects this happening is when such knowledge is trivialized or rejected using words like "unscientific".


by hellbanner   2017-08-20
This reminds me of something from "Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed"[1], about Brazil's new capital [2].

The new order was "visually appealing" to the bureaucrats, with housing in one section, work in one section, government in the middle etc. A lot of vast open space made it so spontaneous markets & trading did not occur (due to enforced zoning and excessive sunlight instead of using shade from buildings), leading to a lower quality of life for its inhabitants.

[1] [2]

by kylemathews   2017-08-19
And "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed" -
by wallflower   2017-08-19
Other than working at an enterprise-type company, getting exposure through watching videos might help. And remember - the best definition of enterprise software that I've ever heard is: enterprise software is when the person buying the software almost is never the one who uses it.

Based on your brief posting, you might be interested in more CIO-style matters.

Really, I personally believe the more exposure you have to fields outside of your profession (at least the one you are in for now), the better mental model of the world you want to be part of you produce.

I used to work in enterprise software so I can say for sure that it its own unique bubble, just like startups.

In fact, read this book:

by Mz   2017-08-19
There is a book called "Seeing like a state"

In it, the author tells a story of someone in a village in a less developed country who cannot afford pesticides. So he starts a war between two ant colonies in order to drive out the ants that are destroying a beloved fruit tree.

You can do the same thing for gut flora. You don't have to wipe things out first. Trying to wipe the gut clean is extremely hard on the body. It's much easier on the body to just feed the good flora and give them support so they start crowding out things you don't want. It's a gentler path. It just takes persistence.

by hellbanner   2017-08-19
For more on how legibility (through naming, street grids, single-crop farms etc) acts a prerequisite for manipulation, check out Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes To Improve The Human Condition Have Failed.