Embracing the illegible

(Rambling time…. normal service will resume shortly)

A couple of years back, Venkat wrote about James Scott’s concept of illegibility:

James C. Scott’s fascinating and seminal book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failedexamines how, across dozens of domains, ranging from agriculture and forestry, to urban planning and census-taking, a very predictable failure pattern keeps recurring.

The idea is that, at a psychological level we find messy, “illegible” situations anxiety-provoking, and so attempt to simplify them. This simplification does not stop at how we perceive, however, but also the way we make an effort to shape the environment to fit the simplification. Venkat provides a nice bullet-point “how to fail” guide:

  • 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

I think in my own work I often struggle with this; I’m often in a situation where I have to understand a big pile of messy legacy systems, byzantine regulatory structures, and actors with complicated motives, and make some sort of useful technological intervention. The natural psychological response is to try to make the illegible complexity into something simple and legible and try to impose that back on reality. The mistake I think that Scott points to is try to make the whole picture legible – “demolishing the old reality if necessary”. In IT terms this is the year-zero Enterprise Architecture model or the Grand Ontology.

A more appropriate route I think is to provide definition – to mark out regions of legibility and illegibility. This is itself an exercise in imposing legibility, but with aesthetic limits – like making paths through a natural forest, rather than cutting it down and planting a grid-pattern tree farm in its place.

One of the most frustrating experiences for me professionally was around something called “Personal Learning Environments”, which is a concept we tried to develop in a project we worked on. In that we had I think an appreciation of the illegibility of the experiences of learning, and rather than imposing a simplification, we wanted to identify where the institution can impose legibility by its processes and systems, and where it should stop.

However, I think many people who looked at that research instead really wanted to make the individual picture legible too. In some cases I think this was done in quite an ethical way, like the work on self-visualization of PLEs by individuals, but in others I think there was this tendency towards “Authoritarian High Modernism” that Scott describes, with similar consequences.

The dilemma is that when we embrace illegibility, our own narrative – which we also have to use to explain our actions to our funders – can also seem incoherent. Probably because it is. For example, CETIS in its “post-standardisation” era seems much less legible than when we were going around trying to impose XML and Web Services everywhere. But its probably a lot better for it.

Maybe we just need to embrace the New Aesthetic.

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8 Responses to Embracing the illegible

  1. sleslie says:

    Great post – I had to google whether “year-zero Enterprise Architecture model or the Grand Ontology” were actual historical terms as they resonated so strongly (I couldn’t find the references if they are, but think I know exactly what they describe.) Another dynamic I count here – wanting (or being paid) to “help” when the exact opposite is what’s needed. It’s easy to centrally fund a position, harder maybe to fund emergence.

  2. scottbw says:

    Thanks Scott :)

    I wrote this whole thing kind of in one take and made up those terms – hey maybe they’ll catch on!

  3. Scott there is a discipline out there that helps us try to understand the unknowable (cybernetics) it has always struggled against the “representational” sciences, perhaps you are in the right department to think about these issues ?

  4. This seems very apropos of Jeni Tennison’s critique of the one-site-rules-all gov.uk initiative and the subsequent discussion: http://www.jenitennison.com/blog/node/167

    Speaking of illegibility, would you mind namespacing yourselves? Scott talking to Scott about Scott is a bit confusing.

  5. Thanks, Scott, your “rambling” mode was evidently perfect for discussing these points :-)

    It’s easy to get too doctrinaire in many varied directions, but I sense a good consensus in CETIS on the value of — well — a certain humility about what can be achieved or what should be attempted all at once. But we don’t want to confuse that with lack of ambition, as long as it’s the right ambition.

    I haven’t spent enough time to understand the New Aesthetic.

    What I will say is this: there is doctrinaire reductionism, and there is something else that can be mistaken for it, but is actually good, not bad. Doctrinaire reductionism (my term of the day for the bad things you are rightly criticising) is prone to dismissing anything that is not explicit in the doctrine. But there is also the urge to make the implicit more explicit — which is really just a different name for consciousness-raising. That is good, as long as you don’t ever dare to think you have finished, when you could dismiss the remainder. That would be the reductionist position, to me.

    I say (not to you; but I hope with you to some extent): respect what is not legible (understandable) to you, even as you try to read (understand) it. Try to translate into your own terms, but be open to being surprised by the need to expand your language.

    And perhaps also … try not to confuse people, or to act superior, by inventing new, illegible, terms for things that are already legible in other terms. It’s sad when people do that.

  6. Apologies for a double-take…

    I followed some of the thinking up a little more, as I felt rather uncomfortable about something-I-knew-not-quite-what.

    Managed to get to the reviews of “Seeing Like a State”. Interestingly, the UK Amazon ones are less full of praise than the US ones. Though I have not read the book, I can fully identify with the position of the reviewer of 2 Nov 1998, titled “Not Seeing One’s Intellectual Parents”. Take a look if you can… http://www.amazon.co.uk/Seeing-Like-State-Condition-Agrarian/product-reviews/0300078153/

    Now as it happens I’ve only recently become aware of Ludwig von Mises, but I share the reviewer’s presumed view that he hits the nail on the head with some things, while developing some horrible ideas apparently as a consequence of the things that are spot on. Personally, I really appreciate the kind of thinking that (partly because I’m not good at it myself) identifies the thinking of someone who has already covered the ground, and offers intelligent critique.

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