Book Review: Seeing Like A State - James C. Scott

by @edent | , | 3 comments

Book cover featuring an eye trapped in a rigid box.

In this wide-ranging and original book, James C. Scott analyses 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.

I've lost count of the number of people who have recommended that I read this book. It dismantles some of the arguments for centralised authority and remaking the world to satisfy the administrative demands of the state.

Is this a call for anarchism? No. I think it's an early plea for more user centred design.

It's really easy for people to design a system that works for people like them. It's much harder to design something which works with "messy" reality.

The first few chapters were highly relevant to my work. It's hard to administer reality - but forcing people / land / systems to conform to something uniform rarely works in practice.

I found the chapters on High-Modernist stuff bit weird. I get the relevance of physical architecture and its parallels to computer architecture, but I felt it went a bit too deep into the weeds of Soviet agricultural plans for my liking. I ended up skim reading some of the chapters on farming. That said, it has a good discussion of colonialism and the perils of thinking you know better than people with local knowledge.

It does an excellent job of explaining the limits of technocracy. There's even some fome feminist critique of centralised design, which is good to see.

Ultimately, it sold me on the idea that standards only works when everyone gets a say in how they are developed. And that they need to be flexible enough to cope with the present and future reality. If we want people to embrace change, it can only be via radical participatory democracy.

A sobering and vitally important book. Highly recommended for anyone who is involved in policy design or standardisation.

Here are some of the choice excerpts I found interesting:

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Seeing Like A State - James C. Scott

  1. Alex says:

    One of his other ones, Weapons of the Weak, is an interesting companion piece.

  2. Thanks, it's still in my evergrowing reading queue

  3. Have started reading it after you mentioned it (and had seen it mentioned so many times before)!

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