Jan 17, 2018
a rat is killed, a man broken, a horse splashes
It’s hard not to read James Scott’s Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed without thinking about the hubris, the homogenizing effects, the unforeseen social consequences of a platform like Facebook, and the obsession with arbitrarily “optimized” scalable media in general:
What is perhaps most striking about high-modernist schemes, despite their quite genuine egalitarian and often socialist impulses, is how little confidence they repose in the skills, intelligence, and experience of ordinary people. This is clear enough in the Taylorist factory, where the logic of work organization is to reduce the factory hands’ contribution to a series of repetitive, if practiced, movements—operations as machine-like as possible… The more ambitious and meticulous the plans, the less is left, theoretically, to change and to local initiative and experience.
Scott explores real architectural planning and other large-scale social engineering in specific examples throughout the book, but in the final chapter, he also uses the idea of the neighborhood as a way to explore top-down-regime planning versus the improvisation of everyday life. He poses two imaginary maps of the same few blocks:
In the case of a planned urban neighborhood, the first map consists of a representation of the streets and buildings, tracing the routes that the planners have provided for the movements between work places and residences, the delivery of goods, access to shopping, and so on. The second map consists of tracings, as in a time-lapse photograph, of all the unplanned movements—pushing a baby carriage, window shopping, strolling, going to see a friend, playing hopscotch on the sidewalk, walking the dog, watching the passing scene, taking shortcuts between work and home, and so on. This second map, far more complex than the first, reveals very different patterns of circulation. The older the neighborhood, the more likely that the second map will have nearly superseded the first, in roughly the same way that planned, suburban Levittowns have, after fifty years, become thoroughly different settings from what their designers envisioned.
If our inquiry has taught us anything, it is that the first map, taken alone, is misrepresentative and indeed nonsustainable. A same-age, monocropped forest with all the debris cleared is in the long run an ecological disaster. No Taylorist factory can sustain production without the unplanned improvisations of an experienced workforce. Planned Brasilia is, in a thousand ways, underwritten by unplanned Brasilia. Without at least some of the diversity identified by [Jane] Jacobs, a stripped-down public housing project (like Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis or Cabrini Green in Chicago) will fail its residents. Even for the limited purposes of a myopic plan—commercial timber, factory output —the one-dimensional map will simply not do. As with industrial agriculture and its dependency on landraces, the first map is possible only because of processes lying outside its parameters, which it ignores at its peril.
The point is simply that high-modernist designs for life and production tend to diminish the skills, agility, initiative, and morale of their intended beneficiaries…Or, to put it in the utilitarian terms that many of their partisans would recognize, these designs tend to reduce the “human capital” of the workforce. Complex, diverse, animated environments contribute, as [Jane] Jacobs saw, to producing a resilient, flexible, adept population that has more experience in confronting novel challenges and taking initiative. Narrow, planned environments, by contrast, foster a less skilled, less innovative, less resourceful population. This population, once created, would ironically have been exactly the kind of human material that would in fact have needed close supervision from above. In other words, the logic of social engineering on this scale was to produce the sort of subjects that its plans had assumed at the outset.
The more schematic, thin, and simplified the formal order, the less resilient and more vulnerable it is to disturbances outside its narrow parameters.
This analysis of high modernism, then, may appear to be a case for the invisible hand of market coordination as opposed to centralized economies. An important caution, however, is in order. The market itself is an instituted, formal system of coordination, despite the elbow room that it provides to its participants, and it is therefore similarly dependent on a larger system of social relations which its own calculus does not acknowledge and which it can neither create nor maintain. Here I have in mind not only the obvious elements of contract and property law, as well as the state’s coercive power to enforce them, but antecedent patterns and norms of social trust, community, and cooperation, without which market exchange is inconceivable. Finally, and most importantly, the economy is “a subsystem of a finite and non-growing ecosystem,” whose carrying capacity and interactions it must respect as a condition of its persistence.
He ends with four modest proposals for social engineering and planner types to do better, but of course they’re relevant for designers too:
Take small steps. In an experimental approach to social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then plan the next small move. As the biologist J. B. S. Haldane metaphorically described the advantages of smallness: “You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mineshaft; and on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away. A rat is killed, a man broken, a horse splashes.”
Favor reversibility. Prefer interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be mistakes. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences. Interventions into ecosystems require particular care in this respect, given our ignorance about how they interact. Aldo Leopold captured the spirit of caution required: “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts.”
Plan on surprises. Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen. In agricultural schemes this may mean choosing and preparing land so that it can grow any of several crops. In planning housing, it would mean “designing in” flexibility for accommodating changes in family structures or living styles. In a factory it may mean selecting a location, layout, or piece of machinery that allows for new processes, materials, or product lines down the road.
Plan on human inventiveness. Always plan under the assumption that those who become involved in the project later will have or will develop the experience and insight to improve on the design.