The Violence of Legibility

Morphing into and from different forms, legibility is a force of nature that has flown under the radar for most of human history. What is legibility? Has its consequences brought out more bad than good? From the Enlightenment to High Modernism to Dataism, I explore the harm that this decoding and recoding force inflicts on the human condition.

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Legibility as Violence

Statistics, in its infancy, was seen by Enlightenment thinkers to be the usurper of mysticism and religion. In The Game of Probability, Literary Scholar Rüdiger Campe writes that Voltaire regarded statistics as the base of his disdain of narrativist history: “The stories of ancient history accordingly offer an example that borders on mythology for Voltaire”. The Rousseauan volonté générale was also expressed with statistical ideas, according to philosopher Han Byung-Chul. To him, the entire Enlightenment was “committed to belief in statistical knowledge.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (left) and Voltaire (right), key Enlightenment thinkers. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Looking at the present day, we have found ourselves in a second Enlightenment. We have faith in data and numbers in their ability to give us “absolute knowledge”. The smallest details of those who are coerced to consent are made into data points to predict human behaviour. How loudly do we snore? How many double-texts have we sent? Does our heart beat faster when we are talking to someone we are crushing on? Do we do more online shopping when we are more stressed? This is not a value judgement, this is information that can and has been extracted from us.

At the root of this logic of information, accumulation is the obsession with legibility. In this piece, I will outline what legibility is. Then, how legibility has developed throughout history. Next, reasons against legibility, and finally, what we can do to counteract it.

What is eLegiblltiy?

This idea of “legibility” was popularised by political scientist James C. Scott in his seminal work, Seeing Like A State. In his analysis of various political systems throughout history, legibility referred to a logic through which governments and state-adjacent actors set out to organise society in an effort to better it. According to Scott, the “most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering” fall into place when four conditions are met: One, the (over)simplification of complex realities. Two, the “High Modernist ideology”. Three, an authoritarian state which, then four, governs a politically neutered civil society.

You would see that what drives legibility is “High Modernist ideology”. It sounds lofty and catchy but I assure you that it is not just something “provocative” and “gets the people going”. Let’s break this phrase down. High Modernism, according to Scott, refers to an unflinching hubristic belief that technology and science can be leveraged to re-engineer nature to Man’s will. He clarifies that it is not science and its practice, because it is “uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic”. It looks at an intricate web of flora and fauna’s ecological relation with Man and turns itchy and jittery because of an apparent lack of order. “How can I turn this slab of land into something I can control?”

This proclivity to make legible has morphed into what people have been calling “Dataism”. I am of the opinion that it is the contemporary reincarnation of Scott’s High Modernism. The proverbial “devil in a new dress”, if you will.

Dataism

Described by Yuval Noah Harari as “The Data Religion”, hailed as “The End of Theory” by Wired’s Chris Anderson, and the “… rising philosophy of the day” by David Brooks in the New York times, Dataism is the new mode of power that has emerged in our times. 

The Big Other. | Photo Credit: Saul Gravy

Nothing is sacred and everything is rendered code; Everything is sacred and everything is rendered code. Bodies, rivers, animals, trees are decoded and recoded — all to be fully optimised.

What links Dataism and High Modernism together is the common logic: To make things more legible. This obsession for legibility can be detrimental. Why? A couple of reasons: One, legibility is the normation of subjects. Two, legibility assumes pseudo-typification. Three, legibility seemingly “justifies” negative outcomes. Four, legibility leads to illegibility.

Normation

The strongest case against legibility to be made is that against normation. Political philosopher Michel Foucault posits in Discipline and Punish that it is a process in which subjects are disciplined, or normed, into docile and passive individuals. Rituals and habits are consistently placed on the subject to shape their behaviour and thinking. Normation is inherent in the concept of legibility. In optimising resources, large generalisations have to be made. A certain “narrowing of vision” as Scott put. The State informs the populace and eventually through “records, courts, and ultimately coercion”.  

In Seeing Like A State, Scott brings up the example of “Scientific Forestry”. Developed in the early 18th century, it has its roots in schemes that kings would employ to better control resources to maximise profit. The process to account for the “worth” of the forest was time- and capital-intensive. A tree is a tree, but they sell for different prices based on their characteristics like type of wood, age of tree, size of trunk, and so on. Over time, these forests were stripped down to their “most profitable” versions. Diverse and robust ecological forest systems became monocultural forests, neatly planted in rows and easily harvested.

Legible and illegible forests normed by Scientific Forestry. | Photo Credit: James C. Scott

As clichéd as it is, I find it hard not to draw parallels of this to education systems in which rote learning is the black box through which populations are educated. The logic of legibility is violent. If you do not fit within the confines of what The State sees, you either adapt or live on the limits of society. You live on the margins, far from centres of power and sovereignty.

No Thyself

Legibility leads to what Matthias Klemm, a professor of social and cultural studies, refers to as “pseudo-typification”.  In the quantification of the self, we lose sight of the real. The problem here is two-fold. One, data collected are simply analytical artefacts, not real-world experiences. Klemm makes a distinction between what we experience and collected data points. Two, snapshots of our data are just that: Snapshots. Taken out of the original context, it loses all meaning as it travels through time.

It strives for greater knowledge of ourselves than we do. Through its manic logic of accumulation — “no, no, we need more information, this is why we couldn’t predict event x…” — There is never enough information. In the name of “understanding”, “transparency”, and other similar buzzwords, we reach a state where we are not afforded privacy. A state where all real actions are quantified, where the body becomes a contingent element of information extraction. A state where our bodies are treated like information pools residing in meat vessels. As Han noted, this is a ridiculous state to be in because “human existence is not transparent, even to itself.” As we let legibility know us, there is no us.

The Map and the Territory

Closely linked to pseudo-typification is, funnily enough, illegibility. As overaccumulation and the software of legibility eats the world, information eventually loses meaning because of its sheer size. In a previous piece I had written, I highlighted more problems with overaccumulation.

A forest (left) compared to a map (right). Details have to be stripped for the map to be useful. If information is presented indiscriminately to the point where it is a 1:1 replication of the forest, it would be of no use. | Photo Credit: Stomero (Pixabay), Google Maps

Jorge Luis Borges’ fable, On Exactitude In Science, highlights problems with pseudo-typification perfectly. In the one-paragraph story, Borges describes a world in which cartographic advances have rendered maps entirely useless. The maps of Empire had come to represent its territories in so much detail that people would have been better off traversing the lands without the map. The signifier gets mixed up with the signified as they both bear full resemblance to each other.

High road to hell

Circling back, central to Scott’s High Modernist tragedy are characters like Le Corbusier, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Beneath their Leviathan presence — droves of bureaucrats, doctors, engineers, and urban planners. It would be a mistake to think that they were evil. The reality is quite the opposite, actually. The engineers believed in a brighter future where every mishap and glitch could be predicted, everything would be accounted for in this wonderful machine. Urban planners thought up utopian visions of cities that could house people cheaply, healthfully, and conveniently. 

Joseph Stalin giving a speech. | Photo Credit: Top War

Lenin in particular spoke highly of the German industrial economy, which practised heavily the micromanagement tactics of industrialist Frederick Taylor. Even after his death, his philosophy of centralisation lived on in Stalin. From 1930 to 1934, Stalin mobilised the armature of the state to forcefully collectivise the farms. In the name of resource optimisation and class warfare, “[L]iquidate the kulaks”, he ordered. The kulaks were people who owned farmland at the end of the Russian Empire. Twenty-five thousand Communists moved to seize rural lands. To call the result a mass famine would be an injustice to what had happened. The deployment of state power to enact “dekulakisation” led to to the extermination of 5.7 to 8.7 million people. All in the name of “the greater good”.

Deceleration

What is wrong with legibility, exactly? Hasn’t it made our lives better? Indubitably. Technology has enabled millions of miracles to happen at lightning speed. Seeing, however, how ingrained into the mainstream consciousness this ideology is, I have presented a case against it.

At this point, you must be wondering, “Okay, the Words User and Complainer is at it again.” To which my response is, yes, you are right. But I do come bearing solutions this time. I must preface this by saying that legibility is not inherently bad but we cannot let it get to an extreme. We must just work to decelerate it.

Play The Idiot

As information is accumulated and God is replaced by the liminal space data centres inhabit, Han invokes Gilles Deleuze, a political philosopher, in Psychopolitics: “… play the fool”.

Okay? How does that help in any way? Let me explain. Legibility is making its way through our modern condition, decoding and recoding flows of information. Bar feeding surveys dirty data, playing the Idiot is a way of thinking that decelerates the totality of information capture. The Idiot is “unallied, un-networked, and uninformed.” This way, the Idiot escapes these flows of information. In deliberately sabotaging the logic of legibility, you escape the “violence of the Same”.

Jenny Odell (left) and Han Byung-Chul (right). | Photo Credit: Jenny Odell, Massimiliano Minocri (EL PAÍS)

This philosophy is encapsulated by Jenny Odell, an artist and professor: “Nothing is harder to do than nothing.” In the fittingly titled How To Do Nothing she argues that one can sometimes strive to be “useless”. Zhuang Zhou, the fourth-century Chinese philosopher, speaks of the virtues of a “useless tree” in a parable. This tree outlived all the other trees in its forest, simply because every carpenter and logger that walked by it deemed it to be “worthless”. Therein lies the paradox. Had the tree been deemed legible and useful, it would’ve been chopped down, unable to fulfil its full potential and simply exist.

I am not proposing that you completely embrace idiosyncrasy and complete illegibility. All I am asking is that as the world spins quicker and time continues its relentless march, we must sometimes decelerate, slow down, and stop. German playwright Botho Strauss put it perfectly. Let us allow ourselves to live as “a flower: an existence simply open to light.”

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