Linking Out Loud #4: Seeing like a State

By David Laing

David Laing


A few months ago I saw a funny exchange in a Fox News clip about the metric system:

Panero: “The metric system […] is the product of the French Revolution. It was imposed at the business end of the guillotine.”

[...a rather long pause...]

Carlson: “So why are our leaders so anxious that we join the rest of the world in using, you know, Robespierre’s favorite standard of measurement?”

When I first saw this clip, I laughed and dismissed it as backward-thinking silliness. But recently I’ve reconsidered somewhat, and that’s because I reread two reviews of James C. Scott’s 1999 book, Seeing like a Stateone by Scott Alexander and one by Venkatesh Rao.

Why would a government choose the metric system, Carlson asks? According to Alexander and Rao, it’s because legible systems allow for easier taxation. 

If, as Alexander says, “you’re a premodern king” and you want to tax your peasants in grain, you’ll need to “measure how many pints of grain everyone produces.” Unfortunately, around the time of the French Revolution, standards of measurement were anything but standard:

The pint in eighteenth-century Paris was equivalent to 0.93 liters, whereas in Seine-en-Montane it was 1.99 liters and in Precy-sous-Thil, an astounding 3.33 liters. The aune, a measure of length used for cloth, varied depending on the material (the unit for silk, for instance, was smaller than that for linen) and across France there were at least seventeen different aunes.

The metric system is just one manifestation of what Scott calls “authoritarian high modernism,” a way of thinking that prizes above all else the idea of legibility.

The flagship example of authoritarian high modernism’s obsession with legibility is 18th-century Prussia’s experimentation with “scientific forestry.” Instead of letting trees and other plants grow at random, the government decreed that trees of a single species should be planted in evenly spaced rows. This, they hoped, would lead to a higher lumber yield. Alexander describes the result:

The endless rows of identical trees were a perfect breeding ground for plant diseases and forest fires. And the complex ecological processes that sustained the soil stopped working, so after a generation the Norway spruces grew stunted and malnourished.

In his review, Rao explains that a fixation on legibility is dangerous because it causes one to:

  • 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

Most of us aren’t state leaders, but each of us reigns over some little pocket of the universe. How many of us fall prey to authoritarian high modernism when ruling ourselves, our homes, or our workplaces? (Consider the Quantified Self movement, smart home devices, or the myriad project management tools we use to track and neatly visualize our time.)

Had I not read these two reviews I never would have dreamed that legibility could be a bad thing. It certainly does come in handy. The comedian John Mulaney jokes that, thanks to the legibility of New York City, the premise of Home Alone 2 doesn’t make much sense:

I wish I’d been a Def Jam comic when that movie came out. I would have torn it to pieces! Be like, “You seen this shit? You seen this Home Alone 2: Lost in New York shit? It’s a grid system, motherfucker! Where you at? 24th and 5th? Where you wanna go? 35th and 6th? 11 up and 1 over, you simple bitch!”

Still, when I consider all the cities I’ve travelled to, my favorite ones are those that developed organically. Every time a road twists out of sight ahead of me, I feel a spark of adventure.

We need to keep fighting the good fight against entropy and chaos, of course. Personally, I’m all for the metric system. But legibility comes at a price—sometimes a price not worth paying. Sometimes we need to let the forest grow wild, lest it rot.

Yours illegibly,