vendredi 25 octobre 2013

Legible Hive.

Joao Batista Vilanova, School of Architecture and Urbanism, Sao Paulo,  1969.

This book grew out of an intellectual detour that became so gripping that I decided to abandon my original itinerary altogether. After I made what appeared to be an ill-considered turn, the surprising new scenery and the sense that I was headed for a more satisfying destination persuaded me to change my plans. The new itinerary, I think, has a logic of its own. It might even have been a more elegant trip had I possessed the wit to conceive of it at the outset. What does seem clear to me is that the detour, although along roads that were bumpier and more circuitous than I had foreseen, has led to a more substantial place. It goes without saying that the reader might have found a more experienced guide, but the itinerary is so peculiarly off the beaten track that, if you're headed this way, you have to settle for whatever local tracker you can fin.

A word about the road not taken. Originally, I set out to understand why the state has always seemed to be the enemy of "people who move around", to put it crudely. In the context of Southeast Asia, this promised to be a fruitful way of addressing the perennial tensions between mobile, slash-and-burn hill peoples on one hand and wet-rice, valley kingdoms on the other. The question, however, transcended regional geography. Nomads and pastorialists (such as Berbers and Bedouins), hunter-gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, run-away slaves, and serfs have been a thorn in the side of states. Efforts to permanently settle these mobile peoples (sedentarization) seemed to be a perennial state project - perennial, in part, because it so seldom succeeded.

The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state's attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state function of taxation, conscription and prevention of rebellion. Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central problem of 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.

It is at this point that the detour began. 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.

The organization of the natural world was no exception. Agriculture is, after all, a radical reorganization and simplification of flora to suit man's goals. Whatever their other purposes, the designs of scientific forestry and agriculture and the layouts of plantations, collective farms, ujamaa villages, and strategic hamlets all seemed calculated to make the terrain, its products, and its workforce more legible - and hence manipulable - from above and from the center.

A homely analogy from beekeeping may be helpful here. In premodern times the gathering of honey was a difficult affair. Even if bees were housed in straw hives, harvesting the honey usually meant driving off the bees and often destroying the colony. The arrangement of brood chambers and honey cells followed complex patterns that varied from hive to hive - patterns that did not allow for neat extractions. The modern beehive, in constrast, is designed to solve the beekeeper's problem. With a device called a "queen excluder", it seperates the brood chambers below from the honey supplies above, preventing the queen from laying eggs above a certain level. Furthermore, the wax cells are arranged neatly in vertical frames, nine or ten to a box, which enable the easy extraction of honey, wax, and propolis. Extraction is made possible by observing "bee space" - the precise distance between the frames that the bees will leave open as passages rather than bridging the frames by building intervening honeycomb. From the beekeeper's point of view, the modern hive is an orderly, "legible" hive allowing the beekeeper to inspect the condition of the colony and the queen, judge its honey production (by weight), enlarge or contract the size of the hive by standard units, move it to a new location, and, above all, extract just enough honey (in temperature climates) to ensure that the colony will overwinter successfully.

I do not wish to push the analogy further than it will go, but much of early European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format. The social simplifications thus introduced not only permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription but also a greatly enhanced state capacity. They made possible quite discriminating interventions of every kind, such as public-health measures, political surveillance, and relief for the poor.

These state simplifications, the basic givens of modern statecraft, were, I began to realize, rather like abridged maps. They did not successfully represent the actual activity of the society they depicted, nor were they intended to ; they represented only that slice of it that interested the official observer. They were, moreover, not just maps. Rather, they were maps that, when allied with state power, would enable much of the reality they depicted to be remade. Thus a state cadastral map created to designate taxable property-holders does not merely describe a system of land tenure ; it creates such a system through its ability to give its categories the force of law. Much of the first chapter is intended to convey how thoroughly society and the environment have been refashioned by state maps of legibility.

This view of early modern statecraft is not particularly original. Suitably modified, however, it can provide a distinctive optic through which a number of huge development fiascoes in poorer Third World nations and Eastern Europe can be usefully viewed.

But "fiasco" is too lighthearted a word for the disasters I have in mind. The Great Leap Forward in China, collectivization in Russia, and compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ethiopia are among the great human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted. At a less dramatic but far more common level, the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities (think of Brasilia and Chandigarh) that have failed their residents. It is not so difficult, alas, to understand why so many human lives have been destroyed by mobilized violence between ethnic groups, religious sects, or linguitic communities. But it is harder to grasp why so many well-intended schemes to improve the human condition have gone so tragically awry. I am, in what follows, to provide a convincing account of the logic behind the failure of some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.

I shall argue that the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements. All four are necessary for a full-fledged disaster. The first element is the administrative ordering of nature and society - the transformative state simplifications described above. By themselves, they are the unremarkable tools of modern statecraft ; they are as vital to the maintenance of our welfare and freedom as they are to the designs of a would-be modern despot. They undergird the concept of citizenship and the provision of social welfare just as they might undergird a policy of rounding up undesirable minorities.

The second element is what I call a high-modernist ideology. It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. It originated, of course, in the West, as a by-product of unprecedented progress in science and industry.

High modernism must not be confused with scientific practice. It was fundamentally, as the term "ideology" implies, a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy of science and technology. It was, accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production. The carriers of high modernism tended to see rational order in remarkably visual aesthetic terms. For them, an efficient, rationally organized city, village, or farm was a city that looked regimented and orderly in a geometrical sense. The carriers of high modernism, once their plans miscarried or were thwarted, tended to retreat to what I call miniaturization : the creation of a more easily controlled micro-order in model cities, model villages, and model farms.

High modernism was about "interests" as well as faith. Its carriers, even when they were capitalist entrepreneurs, required state action to realize their plans. In most cases, they were powerful officials and heads of state. They tended to prefer certain forms of planning and social organization (such as huge dams, centralized communication and transportation hubs, large factories and farms, and grid cities), because these forms fit snugly into a high-modernist view and also answered their political interests as state officials. There was, to put it mildly, an elective affinity between high modernism and the interests of many state officials.

Like any ideology, high modernism had a particular temporal and social context. The feats of national economic mobilization of the belligerents (especially Germany) in World War I seem to mark its high tide. Not surprisingly, its most fertile social soil was to be found among planners, engineers, architects, scientists, and technicians whose skills and status it celebrated as the designers of the new order. High-modernist faith was no respecter of traditional political boundaries ; it could be found across the political spectrum from left to right but particularly among those who wanted to use state power to bring about huge, utopian changes in people's work habits, living patterns, moral conduct, and worldview. Nor was this utopian vision dangerous in and of itself. Where it animated plans in liberal parliamentary societies and where the planners therefore had to negotiate with organized citizens, it could spur reform.

Only when these first two elements are joined to a third does the combination become potentially lethal. The third element is an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being. The most fertile soil for this element has typically been times of war, revolution, depression, and struggle for national liberation. In such situations, emergency conditions foster the seizure of emergency powers and frequently delegitimize the previous regime. They also tend to give rise to elites who repudiate the past and who have revolutionary designs for their people.

A fourth element is closely linked to the third : a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. War, revolution, and economic collapse often radically weaken civil society as well as make the populace more receptive to a new dispensation. Late colonial rule, with its social engineering aspirations and ability to run roughshod over popular opposition, ocasionally met thus last condition.

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large-scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.


As I make clear in examining scientific farming, industrial agriculture, and capitalist markets in general, large-scale capitalims is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplifcation as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardization ; in markets, money talks, not people. Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety. (In Enlightenment's Wake, John Gray makes a similar case for liberalism, which he regards as self-limiting because it rests on cultural and institutional capital that it is bound to undermine). The "interruption", forced by widespread strikes, of France's structural adjustments to accomodate a common European currency is perhaps a straw in the wind. Put bluntly, my bill of particulars against a certain kind of state is by no means a case for politically unfettered market coordination as urged by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. As we shall see, the conclusions that can be drawn from the failures of modern projects of social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State, Yale University Press, 1998, p.1-8.

vendredi 18 octobre 2013

Work & Network.

Tobias Revell, 88.7; Stories from the First Transnational Traders, 2012

Collaborative arrangements between different institutions (firm-firm, firm-public sector, government-academic, etc.) have been widely studied in the 1980s and 1990s from the disciplinary perspectives of economics, sociology, public policy, marketing and geography as well as by interdisciplinary groups. While it might be argued that linkages between institutions are always parts of networks (since very institution has many linkages), these agreements have not necessarily been studied in the context of networks. The type of linkages also varies. Some studies focus on collaborations between business firms, where there is usually a formal contract of some kind in order to establish intellectual property rights and avoid opportunist behavior on the part of the partners. Others are concerned with informal as well as formal linkages, between individuals and between organizations, and involving both the public and private sectors. An overview is given in Coombs et al. (1996).

The actor-network perspective of Callon, Latour and others at the Ecole des Mines de Paris differs from other network analyses in a number of ways. The idea of the actor-network (with a hyphen) suggests a combination of agency and structure or context, neither of which exists independently of the other. Networks cannot exist without the actors which make them up, but neither do actors exist independently of their linkages with a variety of other humans and nonhumans - the networks they create in the course of their social existence (including innovation processes), which define who they are and how they function. Emphasis is often placed on the "works" in the word "networks", suggesting the work of constructing the network that takes place when new actors are enlisted. This may be likened to a spiralling process, which widens out as the network of interests expands, like ripples on a pond. Each participant is drawn in by one or more of the others, and the commitment of one is built on that of each of the others. A variety of individuals with different interests are thus all able to realize their separate aims by the achievement of a common goal, with which all their interests become bound up. This enlistment process is called intéressement in actor-network wrtitings.

The concept of translation is particularly important in this approach. It defines the relationship between two actors or intermediaries; that is, one defines the other, thus, imputing it/him/her with certain interests, plans, desires, strategies, reflexes or afterthoughts. These are then inscribed in intermediaries. For example, if one actor is the author of a scientific paper and the other is its audience, the first actor will have defined the target audience and in writing the paper in such a way as to appeal to that audience, will have inscribed that definition on the paper, the intermediary.

A TEN is a term developed by proponents of the actor-network approach to describe the kind of organisational form resulting from links between a variety of heterogeneous actors such as university laboratories, technical research centres, financial organizations, users, public authorities and so on. The definition of Callon (1992) (p.73) is as follows.

"A techno-economic network is a coordinated set of heterogeneous actors... who participate collectively in the conception, development, production and distribution or diffusion of procedures for producing goods and services, some of which give rise to market transactions. In certain cases... the actors behave predictably, and the technology and its products evolve along lines that are relatively easy to characterize... In other cases, the actors composing TENs... develop complicated strategies, there may be a number of innovations, and these provoke unexpected rearrangements. They can seperate into smaller networks, or they can join other TENs to form more or less extensive ones".

Such organisational forms are developed to carry out cooperative research, such as that conducted within the framework of European programmes, and to gain maximum benefit from the output, though they also exist outside the framework of formal agreements or technological co-operation programs. These organised relations mobilise various types of intermediaries and coordination mechanisms embracing all elements and actors in the innovation process, not just research. Larédo and Mustar (1996) argue that the TEN is a new form of economic actor, which creates collective knowledge and skills. They call the research carried out "basic technological research". It is "basic" because a large majority of the research teams, not just academics, place a great deal of emphasis on outputs normally regarded as "academic" such as PhD theses and publications in refereed journals. It is "technological" because a majority of the teams, and not just those from industry, take part on the assumption that a new commercial product or process will (eventually) result from work. It is generally argued that TENs are organised around three "poles", though de Laat (1996) has produced a model with a fourth pole, one around government agencies and other public authorities. The three poles (Callon, 1992; OECD, 1992) are the scientific, the technical and the market poles.

As Callon sees it, in economics, it is things - intermediaries - which bring actors in relationships with each other. The intermediary passes between them and constitutes the form and substance of the relationship between them (e.g., a product passing from producer to customer). In sociology, the behaviour of actors can only be understood in the context within which they are being analysed and actors cannot be dissociated from the relationships into which they enter. Callon suggests that the viewpoints of sociologists and economists can be brought together by focusing on actors who recognise themselves in interaction, and interaction embodied in intermediaries that they themselves put into circulation.

Ken Green, Richard Hull, Andrew McMeekin & Vivien Walsh, The Construction of the Techno-economic: Networks vs. Paradigms in Research Policy, 28, 1999, p.778-779.

vendredi 11 octobre 2013

Organized Complexity.

Professor Bourbaki, Shenyang, 2009.

A few decades before Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of the rhizome, American scientist Warren Weaver was already aware of the inherent complexities of nature and the hurdles anticipated by the scientific community in deciphering them. In 1948 in an article entitled ‘Science and Complexity’, Weaver divided the history of modern science into three distinct stages: The first period, covering most of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, encapsulated what he denominated as ‘problems of simplicity’. Most scientists during this period were fundamentally trying to understand the influence of one variable over another. The second phase, taking place during the first half of the twentieth century, involved ‘problems of disorganized complexity’. This was a period of time when researchers started conceiving systems with a substantial number of variables, but the way many of these variables interacted was thought to be random and sometimes chaotic. The last stage defined by Weaver, initiated in the second half of the twentieth century and continuing to this day, is critically shaped by ‘problems of organized complexity’. Not only have we recognized the presence of exceedingly complex systems, with a large number of variables, but we have recognized the notion that these variables are highly interconnected and interdependent.

Manuel Lima, Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information, Princeton Architectural Press, 2011, p.45.

vendredi 4 octobre 2013

Les Étoiles.

Steven Spielberg, E.T., 1982.
Notre troupe comptait actuellement plus de cinq cents hommes. La vue de ces gaillards du Nord solides et hardis, joviaux, éparpillés par tout le désert pour une chasse endiablée à la gazelle nous enleva, pour l'instant au moins, toute appréhension sur l'issue de notre entreprise. Nous nous sentîmes en humeur de bamboche ; ce soir, décidâmes-nous, serait un soir de riz ; les chefs des Abou Tayis vinrent donc souper avec nous. Après le repas, rassemblés, contre la fraîcheur de ce haut plateau nordique, autour de la braise agréablement rougeoyante où bouillottait l'eau du café, l'on bavarda, sur le tapis, de choses lointaines et d'autres.

Nacer s'étendit sur le dos, mes jumelles à la main, et se prit à considérer les étoiles. Après avoir dénombré à haute voix deux ou trois constellations, il s'extasia en découvrant de petites lueurs qu'il n'avait pas remarqué à l’œil nu. Aouda mit la conversation sur les télescopes (les grands) : il faut raconter comment l'homme, en trois siècles, avait fait de tels progrès qu'il pouvait aujourd'hui construire des lunettes aussi longues que la tente, et compter dans cet instrument des millions d'étoiles inconnues. "Mais qu'est-ce donc qu'une étoile ?" On passa aux soleils qui sont derrière les soleils, aux distances et aux grandeurs inimaginables. "Qu'allez-vous faire maintenant de cette science ? demanda Mohammed. - Nous allons la pousser plus loin encore. De nombreux savants et quelques génies construiront ensemble des instruments dont la puissance dépassera les nôtres autant que les nôtres dépassent la lunette de Galilée. Toujours de nouvelles centaines d'astronomes, discutant et déterminant de nouvelles milliers d'étoiles, en dresseront la carte et donneront à chacune son nom. Quand nous les verrons toutes, il n'y aura plus de nuit dans le ciel."

"Pourquoi les Occidentaux veulent-ils toujours tout ? dit Aouda. - Derrière nos rares étoiles nous voyons Dieu, qui n'est pas derrière les millions des vôtres. - Nous voulons connaître la fin du monde, Aouda. - Mais elle appartient à Dieu", se plaignit Zaal presque irrité. Mohammed se refusa à laisser tourner sa question. "Y'a-t-il des hommes sur ces mondes plus grands que le nôtre ? demanda-t-il. - Dieu le sait. - Et connaissent-ils tous le Prophète, le Ciel et l'Enfer ?" Aouda interrompit : "Garçons, nous connaissons nos districts, nos chameaux, nos femmes. Le superflu et la gloire appartiennent à Dieu. Si la fin de la sagesse est d'accumuler les étoiles, alors vive notre folie !" Aussitôt il parla d'argent ; l'attention fut rompue ; le bourdonnement des conversations reprit. Alors Aouda me murmura que je devais lui faire obtenir de Fayçal un cadeau sérieux quand il aurait pris Akaba.

Thomas Edward Lawrence, traduit de l'anglais par Charles Mauron, Les Sept Piliers de la Sagesse, Éditions Petite Bibliothèque Payot, 1926 (2002), p.386-387.