Book by James C. Scott

An account of the logic behind the failure of some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.


  1. Take small steps: In an experimental approach to social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer wherever possible to take a small step back, observe, and then plan the next small move (see also: Collingridge dilemma)
  2. Favour reversibility: prefer interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be mistakes. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences. Interventions into ecosystems require particular care in this respect, given our great ignorance about how they interact. Aldo Leopold captured the spirit of caution required: “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts” (see also: Chesterton’s Fence)
  3. Plan on surprises: in agricultural schemes, this may mean choosing and preparing land so that it can grow any of several crops. In planning housing, it would mean “designing in” flexibility for accommodating changes in family structures or living styles.
  4. Plan on human inventiveness: always plan under the assumption that those who become involved in the project later will have or will develop the experience and insight to improve on the design

These, unsurprisingly, have heavy overlap with the design of software


  • Legibility: certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision.
    • ”Legibility is a condition of manipulation. Any substantial state intervention in society — to vaccinate a population, produce goods, mobilize labour, tax people and their property, conduct literacy campaigns, conscript soldiers, enforce sanitation standards, catch criminals start universal schooling — requires the invention of units that are visible"
    • "The great advantage of such tunnel vision is that it brings into sharp focus certain limited aspects of an otherwise far more complex and unwieldy reality."
    • "This very simplification, in turn, makes the phenomenon at the centre of the field of vision more legible and hence more susceptible to careful measurement and calculation.”
  • Standards
    • ”Large-scale commercial exchange and long-distance trade tend to promote common standards of measurement.”
    • But yet, most complexities of human life fail to be marshalled into a single regulatory code.
    • ”Even in a particular locality, practices varied greatly from farm to farm and over time; any codification would be partly arbitrary and artificially static. To codify local practices was thus a profoundly political act."
    • "At the limit, there would be at least as many legal codes as there were communities”
  • Cities
    • ”For Jacobs, the city as a social organism is a living structure that is constantly changing and springing surprises. Its connections are so complex and dimly understood that planning always risks unknowingly cutting into its living tissue, thereby damaging or killing vital social processes.”
    • See also: Chesterton’s Fence
  • Why schemes have failed, a tldr;
    • “I would say that the progenitors of such plans regarded themselves as far smarter and farseeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were.”

Monocultures and centralization are fragile

  • Scientific, “fiscal forestry”, and monocultures
    • In which the actual tree with its vast number of uses was replaced by an abstract tree representing a volume of lumber or firewood.
    • Purely, the state wanted to optimize the greatest possible constant volume of wood
    • ”In the short run, this experiment in the radical simplification of the forest to a single commodity was a resounding success."
      • "It is apparent that centralized high-modernist solutions can be the most efficient, equitable, and satisfactory for many tasks. Space exploration, the planning of transportation networks, flood control, airplane manufacturing , and other endeavours may require huge organizations minutely coordinated by a few experts."
    • "But it was the whole world that lied ‘outside the brackets’ which returned to haunt this technical vision."
      • "The narrowness in turn means that production agronomy is occasionally blindsided by factors outside its analytical focus and is forced, by the resulting crisis, to take a broader perspective"
    • "The monoculture meant that the whole nutrient cycle got out of order and eventually was nearly stopped, representing a production loss of 20 to 30 percent. A new term, Waldsterben (forest death), entered the German vocabulary. An exceptionally complex process involving soil building, nutrient uptake, and symbiotic relations among fungi, insects, mammals, and flora was apparently disrupted with serious consequence."
    • "Monocultures are, as a rule, more fragile and hence more vulnerable to the stress of disease and weather than polycultures are”
  • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
    • ”While the sea of history remains calm the ruler-administrator in his frail bark, holding it with a boat hook to the ship of the people and himself moving, naturally imagines that his efforts move the ship he is holding on to. But as soon as a storm arises and the sea begins to heave and the ship begins to move, such a delusion is no longer possible. The ship moves independently with its own enormous motion, the boat hook no longer reaches the moving vessel, and suddenly the administrator, instead of appearing a rule and a source of power, becomes an insignificant, useless, feeble man."
  • "Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything converges on the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity, The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arrange for God.” (see also: The Unflattening)

Diversity is Good, actually

  • Explaining the Western appeal for ‘order‘
    • “The diversity of species naturally occurring in a tropical setting is, other things being equal, consistently greater than the diversity of species in a temperate setting. An acre of tropical forest will have far more species of plants, although fewer individuals of each species, than will an acre of temperate woodland. Thus unmanaged nature in temperate climates looks more orderly because it is less diverse, and this may play a role in the visual culture of Westerners.”
  • Jacobs and parallels with cities
    • ”A highly specialized neighborhood, by contrast, is like a gambler placing all his bets on one turn of the roulette wheel. If he wins, he wins big; if he loses, he may lose everything. For Jacobs, of course, a key point about the diversity of a neighborhood is the human ecology it fosters. The variety of locally available goods and services and the complex human networks that it makes possible, the foot traffic that promotes safety, the visual interest than animated and convenient neighborhood provides — all interact to make such a location’s advantages cumulative. The diversity and complexity that cause systems of flora to become more durable and resilient work, at another level apparently, to cause human communities to become more nimble and satisfactory.”

Flexibility for the unexpected

  • Cities and Design
    • Whereas Le Corbusier’s planner is concerned with the overall form of the cityscape and its efficiency in moving people from point to point, Jacob’ planner consciously makes room for the unexpected, small, informal, and even nonproductive human activities that constitute the vitality of the “lived city"
  • "[imperial pretensions of agronomic science’s] inability to recognize or incorporate knowledge created outside its paradigm sharply limited its utility to many cultivators. Whereas farmers, as we shall see, seem pragmatically alert to knowledge coming from any quarter should it serve their purposes"
    • "Farmers, being polytheists when it comes to agricultural practice, are quick to seize whatever seems useful from the epistemic work of formal science”
  • Erosion Control
    • ”Erosion control in Japan is like a game of chess. The forest engineer, after studying his eroding valley, makes his first move, locating and building one or more check dams. He waits to see what Nature’s response is. This determines the forest engineer’s next move, which may be another dam or two, an increase in the former dam, or the construction of side retaining walls. Another pause for observation, the next move is made, and so on, until the erosion is checkmated.”

Informal Order

  • Jane Jacobs’ Sidewalk Terms
    • ”Jacobs explains that when a friend used their apartment while she and her husband were away or when they didn’t want to wait up for a late-arriving visitor, they would leave the key to their apartment with the deli owner, who had a special drawer for such keys and who held them for friends. She noted that every nearby mixed-used street had someone who played the same role: a grocer, candy-store owner, barber, butcher, dry cleaner, or bookshop owner/ This is one of the many public functions of private business. These services, Jacobs notes, are not the outgrowth of any deep friendship; they are the result of people being on what she calls ‘sidewalk terms’ with others… The city relies on the density of people who are on sidewalk terms with one another to maintain a modicum of public order… A person didn’t think twice about asking someone to hold one’s seat at the theatre, to watch a child while one goes to the restroom, or to keep an eye on a bike while one ducks into a deli to buy a sandwich"
  • "The planned city, the planned village, and the planned language are, we have emphasized, likely to be thin cities, villages, and languages. They are thin in the sense that they cannot reasonably plan for anything more than a few schematic aspects of the inexhaustibly complex activities that characterize ‘thick’ cities and villages. One all-but-guaranteed consequence of such thin planning is that the planned institution generates an unofficial reality — a ‘dark twin’ that arises to perform many of the needs that the planned institutions fails to fulfil… Nearly every new, exemplary capital city has, as the inevitable accompaniment of its official structures, given rise to another, far more ‘disorderly’ and complex city that makes the official city work — that is virtually a condition of its existence. That is, the dark twin is not just an anomaly, an ‘outlaw reality’; it represents the activity and life without which the official city would cease to function."
  • "It is helpful to imagine two different maps of activity [in a city]. In the case of a planned urban neighbourhood, the first map consists of a representation of the streets and buildings, tracing the routes that the planners have provided for the movements between work places and residences, the delivery of goods, access to shopping, and so on. The second map consists of tracings, as in time-lapse photograph, of all the unplanned movements — pushing a baby carriage, window shopping, strolling, going to see a friend, playing hopscotch on the sidewalk, walking the dog, watching the passing scene, taking shortcuts between work and home, and so on. This second map, far more complex than the first, reveals very different patterns of circulation. The older the neighbourhood, the more likely that the second map will have nearly supeseded the first, in roughly the same way that planned suburban Levittowns have, after fifty years, become thoroughly different settings from what their designers envisioned."
    • "If our inquiry has taught us anything, it is that the first map, taken alone, is misrepresentative and indeed nonsustainable… As with industrial agriculture and its dependency on landraces, the first map is possible only because of processes lying outside its parameters, which is ignores at its peril.”

Metis and Local Knowledge

  • See also: traditional knowledge
  • ”One powerful indication that [a skill requires] metis is that they are exceptionally difficult to teach apart from engaging in the activity itself. One might imagine trying to write down explicit instructions on how to ride a bicycle, but one can scarcely imagine that such instructions would enable a novice to ride a bicycle on the first try"
  • "We might reasonably think of situated, local knowledge as being partisan knowledge as opposed to generic knowledge… An insurer of commercial shipping for a large, highly capitalized maritime firm can afford to rely on probability distributions for accidents. But for a sailor or captain hoping for a safe voyage, it is the outcome of the single event, a single trip, that matters. Metis is the ability and experience necessary to influence the outcome — to improve the odds — in a particular instance."
  • "The big mistake of the rationalist — though it is not inherent in the method — is to assume that ‘tradition’ or what is better called ‘practical knowledge’ is rigid fixed and unchanging — in fact it is ‘preeminently fluid’. Tradition, in part because of its local variation, is pliable and dynamic. No traditional way of behaviour. no traditional skill ever remains fixed. Its history is one of continual change.”