Legibility

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Description

James C. Scott:

Legibility refers to

"a state's attempt to make society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft. The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed “map” of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to “translate” what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view. As a result, its interventions were often crude and self-defeating.

....

How did the state gradually get a handle on its subjects and their environment? Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored....

How were the agents of the state to begin measuring and codifying, throughout each region of an entire kingdom, its population, their landholdings, their harvests, their wealth, the volume of commerce, and so on?

...

Each undertaking... exemplified a pattern of relations between local knowledge and practices on one hand and state administrative routines on the other.... In each case, local practices of measurement and landholding were “illegible” to the state in their raw form. They exhibited a diversity and intricacy that reflected a great variety of purely local, not state, interests. That is to say, they could not be assimilated into an administrative grid without being either transformed or reduced to a convenient, if partly fictional, shorthand. The logic behind the required shorthand was provided... by the pressing material requirements of rulers: fiscal receipts, military manpower, and state security. In turn, this shorthand functioned... as not just a description, however inadequate. Backed by state power through records, courts, and ultimately coercion, these state fictions transformed the reality they presumed to observe, although never so thoroughly as to precisely fit the grid." (http://c4ss.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/James-Scott.pdf)


Discussion

On Horizontal Legibility

Kevin Carson:

"One-way communication creates opacity from above; two-way communication creates horizontal legibility.

To quote Michel Bauwens:

- The capacity to cooperate is verified in the process of cooperation itself. Thus, projects are open to all comers provided they have the necessary skills to contribute to a project. These skills are verified, and communally validated, in the process of production itself. This is apparent in open publishing projects such as citizen journalism: anyone can post and anyone can verify the veracity of the articles. Reputation systems are used for communal validation. The filtering is a posteriori, not a priori. Anti-credentialism is therefore to be contrasted to traditional peer review, where credentials are an essential prerequisite to participate.

P2P projects are characterized by holoptism. Holoptism is the implied capacity and design of peer to [peer] processes that allows participants free access to all the information about the other participants; not in terms of privacy, but in terms of their existence and contributions (i.e. horizontal information) and access to the aims, metrics and documentation of the project as a whole (i.e. the vertical dimension).

This can be contrasted to the panoptism which is characteristic of hierarchical projects: processes are designed to reserve 'total' knowledge for an elite, while participants only have access on a 'need to know' basis. However, with P2P projects, communication is not top-down and based on strictly defined reporting rules, but feedback is systemic, integrated in the protocol of the cooperative system." (http://c4ss.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/James-Scott.pdf)

Source: 3 Michel Bauwens, “The Political Economy of Peer Production,” Ctheory.net, December 1, 2005 <http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=499>.

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