Ryan’s notes

A Big Little Idea Called Legibility



  • across dozens of domains, ranging from agriculture and forestry, to urban planning and census-taking, a very predictable failure pattern keeps recurring.

  • Here is the recipe:

    • 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

    • The big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.” We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility.

    • https://xkcd.com/793/

    • My own deep desire for legibility began when I was young: Me, the Mayor

    • legible : clear enough to understand

    • Pursuing legibility is an antidote to the anxiety of not understanding

    • The desire for legibility is both a desire for control and a failure pattern

    • Legibility leads to failure when we ignore the underlying complexity of a system

  • The book is full of thought-provoking pictures like this: farmland neatly divided up into squares versus farmland that is confusing to the eye, but conforms to the constraints of local topography, soil quality, and hydrological patterns; rational and unlivable grid-cities like Brasilia, versus chaotic and alive cities like Sao Paolo.

  • Complex realities turn this logic on its head; it is easier to comprehend the whole by walking among the trees, absorbing the gestalt, and becoming a holographic/fractal part of the forest, than by hovering above it.

    • gestalt : a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts

  • The researcher patiently informs him that subjects’ brains tend to go crazy when a white noise (high Shannon entropy) pattern is presented. The brain goes nuts trying to find order in the chaos.

  • The process doesn’t always lead to unmitigated disaster. In some of the more redeeming examples, there is merely a shift in a balance of power between more global and more local interests. For example, we owe to this high-modernist formula the creation of a systematic, global scheme for measuring time, with sensible time zones. The bewilderingly illegible geography of time in the 18th century, while it served a lot of local purposes very well (and much better than even the best atomic clocks of today), would have made modern global infrastructure, ranging from the railroads (the original driver for temporal discipline in the United States) to airlines and the Internet, impossible.

    • Reminds me of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and how cooperating at increasing scales requires new technologies: gossip, fiction, numbers

    • Making things legible is extremely useful when coordinating large numbers of people

      • standards and interoperability

  • The high-modernist reformer does not acknowledge (and often genuinely does not understand) that he/she is engineering a shift in optima and power, with costs as well as benefits. Instead, the process is driven by a naive “best for everybody” paternalism, that genuinely intends to improve the lives of the people it affects. The high-modernist reformer is driven by a naive-scientific Utopian vision that does not tolerate dissent, because it believes it is dealing in scientific truths.

  • The failure pattern is perhaps most evident in urban planning, a domain which seems to attract the worst of these reformers.

    • Tech cities, Peter Thiel, alternative: Jane Jacobs

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