My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is an incredible critique of the accidental and not so accidental authoritarianism of the past 200+ years in which high modernist planning used scientific knowledge and oversimplification to attempt to improve the world. Through social and environmental engineering, James C. Scott documents the ways revolutionaries have attempted to simplify the world so that it is more legible and controllable, assuming scientific expertise would make society more efficient and productive. Most of these efforts were well intentioned and meant to advance a society rapidly like in the case of the budding Soviet Union under Lenin and villagization in East Africa after independence. Scott argues that these schemes fail because they disrespect “metis,” the local practical knowledge that people have accrued over hundreds of years that allow their agriculture to be productive and resilient in the harshest of settings and their communities to have an organically developed internal logic that keeps them stable. The importance of these “traditional” features is proven not just in the failure of authoritarian imposed systems but in the survival of people in spite of these failures. From the kolkhoz farmers in the Soviet Union to the peripheral residents of Brasilia, the author notes how they adapted and improvised to create the diverse practices and informal relationships typical of metis that kept the larger society functioning. This often meant parallel or dark economies conducted beyond the ledgers of centralized authorities.
The book’s critique is an important perspective for any industry or sector that has a tendency toward over-simplifying the world in order to fit certain scientific visions of rational systems (most of the them). Solutionism, whether derived from high modernist appeals to perfect geometry of all things or the belief that Big Data will provide universal insights as long as we have enough rows and columns, should be balanced by a respect for local, practical knowledge. This is the key insight and offering of the book, that despite the fact metis doesn’t scale by definition it will inevitably determine how society works and whether it survives. Scott argues that we need to think about design which is open to the influence of practical knowledge, which is connected to its organic roots and made more productive by the interaction between the local and the global. The book is not a rejection of scientific knowledge but of acknowledgement its limitations, where breadth of application dominated by averages cannot simply replace depth and detail.