Posts Tagged ‘Seeing Like a State’

James Scott and the Art of Not Being Governed

February 25, 2014

Some time ago I read and admired James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism, in which he pointed out how nowadays most Europeans and Americans are overly ready to obey authority.

I also read Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which is about how the modern world has been shaped by the desire of rulers to make their subjects legible, so that they can be more easily taxed, conscripted and controlled, and the disasters that have followed from rulers’ illusion that information is the same as understanding.

I haven’t yet got around to reading his other great book, The Art of Not Being Governed, which is about 100 million people in the uplands of southeast Asia who have successfully escaped the control of governments in the region.  This video is a good preview.

As Scott pointed out, the ungoverned people he studied were not primitives who had failed to catch up with civilization.  Rather they were the descendents of people who centuries before had escaped the control of governments of China, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries.

He noted that only during the last few centuries has it been possible to even argue that there is a  net benefit to being under the jurisdiction of a government.  Prior to that you were better off being a free hunter-gatherer.  All government did was tax you, conscript you, enslave you and possibly provide some protection for other governments.

[Added later]  I did eventually finish reading The Art of Not Being Governed.  Click on the link for my review.

‘Seeing Like a State,’ the NSA and Big Data

February 10, 2014


I’ve long admired James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which describes the history of the modern world as a history of governments collecting more and more information about the people and communities they ruled, and of how they mistake information for understanding, often with disastrous results.

Ancient and medieval kings and emperors collected tribute from the people they ruled, but they often knew little about them.  In order to more efficiently collect taxes, draft people into armies, mobilize economic resources and also carry out reforms, it was necessary for rulers to identify their subjects and collect basic information.

It is for that reason that there is a record of my name and address, my age and birthplace, the size and value of my house, the boundaries of my property, what kind of automobile I own, the amount and sources of my income and much else.  This has advantages in that this knowledge enables governments and corporations to provide me services that could not have been available in an earlier age, and provide them more efficiently.

As Scott pointed out, the problem is that the picture that governments have about their subjects (or, for that matter, corporations have about their employees and customers) represents a simplification of reality, and, when they act on that simplified information, trouble results.

The culminations of this process are the Surveillance State and corporate Big Data.  Government intelligence agencies will have information not only on what I own, where I go, what I earn and how I earn it, but details of my personal life from which inferences can be drawn about my tastes, thoughts and feelings.  Some of these inferences will be drawn by computer algorithms, like the one used select targets for flying killer drones in remote areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

The power of intelligence agencies to gather information about individuals is greater than ever, and yet this information has not prevented the defeat of the U.S. military nor the growing appeal of Al Qaeda.  The date gathered by U.S. corporations about customers and employees is more extensive than ever, and yet this does not (so far as I can see) result in excellent customer service or excellent employee relations.  Misunderstandings about.  People are put on “no fly” lists for no apparent reason.  Banks foreclose on people with paid-up mortgages.

Knowledge is power and power corrupts.  But the worst corruption is the exercise of absolute power based on the illusion of knowledge.  What is needed is to reverse the polarity of surveillance—to make the inner workings of government and corporations at least as legible to the citizens as the other way around.


James C. Scott on Seeing Like a State

July 30, 2013

I’ve posted a lot about dysfunctional organizations, both governmental and corporate.  I recently finished reading a brilliant book, SEEING LIKE A STATE: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, which shows that the things that bother me are not aberrations caused by the Bush and Obama administrations or by current corporate management, but are part of a long historical process.

seeinglikeastateThe author, James C. Scott’s, described how our institutions and ways of thinking evolved to give  rulers the means to monitor their subjects in order to control them.

Not many centuries ago, most people didn’t have surnames and given names, just local nicknames.  In the little town I grew up in, most people were better known by their nicknames than the names than the names on their birth certificates.  This may have been confusing to outsiders, but we knew who we were.

In order for individuals to be taxed and conscripted into military service, it is necessary for the ruler to know who they are.  That is why everyone must have a name that is a unique (for all practical purposes) identifier and, nowadays, an identification number as well.

Odd as it may now seem, there was a time when governments did not have records of everybody’s address (not every location had an address), marital status, criminal record and employment history.   People did not carry identification papers and were not required to show them.

But governments want their subjects to be visible, and over time this process accelerates.  There are benefits to this, of course.  But the more that governments have on file about us individually, the harder it is to escape the web of control.  The  culmination of the process Scott describes is the National Security Agency’s goal of having a data base that includes every human being on the planet.

Administrators’ growing knowledge leads to the pitfalls of what Scott called Authoritarian High Modernism (which Nassim Nicolas Taleb called the Soviet-Harvard illusion)—the application of  theory without a reality check.