Very Short Book Review: “Seeing Like a State”

This is part 4 of a 10 part series, exploring five books designed to change liberal minds and five to change conservative minds. I’ve decided to read all ten, in alternating fashion.

The fourth book in this series is called “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”.

This book falls into the same category as quite a few non-fiction books I’ve read recently: educational, but a bit longer than it probably needed to be. At 468 pages, it’s not exactly War & Peace, but better editing could have imparted the same lessons in half the pages.

This book explores the pitfalls of centralized government planning when it comes to agriculture, forestry, architecture, and civil engineering. It explores what happens when authoritarian power structures impose their will on environments without a deep understanding and appreciation of what things are like on the ground.

To give a few examples:

  • In Germany and in other places, the government used to prescribe the clearcutting of forests to allow for monocropping. When you grow only one crop, you can optimize yield more easily. The end result, however, is a forest lacking in diversity and thus more susceptible to disease.
  • In cities like Brasilia, the government set out to create a perfect metropolis from scratch, paying no attention to how people actually live their lives. The result was a city that looked visually considered but was a pain in the ass to live in.
  • In the Soviet Union, the fathers of communism sought to collectivize farms and other drivers of the economy in order to maximize grain output and overall production. The result was a system that worked more poorly than the one it replaced and cast aside decades of local knowledge about how to farm and produce creatively.

The overall lesson of the book is essentially that human beings are great at accumulating local expertise (“metis”) and using it to great advantage, and thus any schemes designed to improve things need to start with this knowledge and not some utopian ideal created out of thin air. This lesson also carries with it a warning against looking at people toiling within a current system as somehow “backward” and in need of technological rescuing (I believe this is the “conservative” angle of this book).

The most interesting bit of the book, in my opinion, is the discussion of “High Modernism”… a term I hadn’t heard of before. High Modernism is essentially a philosophy that says it doesn’t matter what currently exists, but only what can exist in the future. High Modernism turns a blind eye to why people might like small, windy streets and instead prescribes strict 90 degree grids. High Modernism never considers that people might enjoy co-mingling where they work and where they live and instead carves out distinct areas of cities for each. High Modernism looks great from an airplane but works terribly on the ground. The best chapter of the book goes into great detail on one of High Modernism’s chief proponents — someone quite oddly named “Le Corbusier” — and one of its chief detractors — Jane Jacobs.

In thinking about where else we see High Modernism in life, I go immediately back to my own profession: product design. How often do we create products or interfaces that look squeaky clean but don’t actually match how people might best use them? High Modernism seems like one of those concepts that once you see, you can’t unsee.

As for this book, I recommend it if the above topics sound interesting to you. However, given its uneven level of interestingness, don’t be afraid to skim a little when you need to.

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