(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 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 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.