DRMacIver's Notebook

Legibility as a relationship

Legibility as a relationship

An idea that has been fairly foundational to my thinking is legibility, an idea introduced in James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State”. Venkatesh Rao’s introduction is probably where you need to go if you’re not familiar with it. I’ve also previously given a talk about it.

I’ve written a bit (notes on the legibility war, legibility privileges) about how legibility interacts with identity, privilege, etc. What you might not have noticed in these posts is that I was using the concept “wrong”. I think my usage is better than the original, so I’d like to expand on it a bit.

In my usage, illegibility is the amount of work required for the entity to understand the system - a highly legible system is one that is low effort to understand. Legibility is that which streamlines things and makes the system low effort to understand.

The thing about how the concept is originally used is that it treats legibility as a property of the system, but it’s not. Legibility is a property of the relationship between the system and some entity. A thing is not legible or illegible in and of itself, it’s legible or illegible to someone (or something - a government, a company, etc).

A useful analogy might be attractiveness. Attractiveness is at a fairly fundamental level attractiveness to someone in particular, but it still makes sense to talk about someone being more or less attractive. People can be more or less attractive in some “objective” sense, but all that really means is that there are as many different notions of attractiveness as there are people, but there are a number of strong correlations between those different notions. These correlations will depend strongly on local norms, and less but still strongly on a few universals, but there will also be a huge amount of individual variation and you cannot really understand attractiveness without paying attention to that variation.

Scott’s work is a piece of anarchist theory, so he’s particularly interested in the legibility of the relationship between a single large and powerful entity (perhaps a large company, but more ordinarily a state) and many comparatively powerless individuals, but equally important (especially to marginalised people) is the power individuals exert over each other, and focusing on legibility as a relationship.

The important point in Scott’s work on legibility is that when we couple understanding to power, we force the world to become more legible to us through our attempts to control it.

A good example of this is the standardisation of weights and measures. Prior to standardisation, there were a large number of local weights and measures with each village (and often each individual merchant!) using their own, but the government imposed a single unified standard so that, among other reasons, they could tax things properly (this is often the reason for government’s imposing legibility).

Importantly, no individual choice of weights or measures was more or less legible than any other. The thing that created the illegibility was that people using different standards were not mutually intelligible to each other without additional work. You can translate, but you have to translate if you want to become mutually understood. Because the government was interacting with many more of these local standards, the cost of translation was much higher (to the point of being almost impossible), and their ability to impose their own standards was also much higher, so standardisation happened.

But standardisation happens locally too. Although individual merchants may have their own weights and measures, if two merchants interact regularly enough they’re going to come up with some common standards. They might not adopt them for everything, but at some point it becomes easier for them to just share a standard. If, in contrast, they hardly ever interact, there is no such incentive. This is akin to the way people learn which way to veer in a collision - conformity is driven by interactions.

The role of power in this is that of determining which side has a stronger incentive to conform to the other. A merchant interacting with a government has a very strong incentive to conform (the government has much more power) while the government has a comparatively weak incentive (as well as the merchant having less power, there are many other merchants with equal and competing demands). Thus the merchant becomes legible to the government rather than the other way around.

Similarly, marginalised people are forced to become legible to the mainstream rather than the other way around, because by definition there are fewer of them and they have less power, so they have less ability to impose their standards of legibility on others.