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Gross Simplification

“Administrative man recognizes that the world he perceives is a drastically simplified model of the buzzing, blooming confusion that constitutes the real world. He is content with the gross simplification because he believes that the real world is mostly empty—that most of the facts of the real world have no great relevance to any particular situation he is facing and that most significant chains of causes and consequences are short and simple.”

-Herbert Simon

James C. Scott excerpts this quote in his book Seeing Like a State, which I recently started reading on a very strong recommendation. Herbert Simon was a pioneer of artificial intelligence and his warning against oversimplification foreshadows the effects that more recent technologies seem to be having on people who use them. In fact, Simon’s quote expresses (in more extreme language) what I was trying to say in one of my first posts on this blog, You Are Not a Packet. Scott’s ideas about legibility and complexity will probably show up a lot more here as I progress through his book.

4 Comments on “Gross Simplification”

  1. Vasu says:

    I actually cite Scott’s book heavily in essays I write and will in my dissertation research too. The notion of legibility is very close to the colonial imposition of English on Ireland and the Irish intellectual elite’s attempt to revive Gaelic in the Irish Revival in the 1920s and 1930s during the Irish Free State in the transition to the Republic.

    An interesting read for you might be Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities. She’s the great-granddaughter of Mahatma, and the book is about building postcolonial or national communities around radical forms of resistance or violence, like speech acts, pacificism (itself a form of violence), or nonvegetarianism. It’s actually pretty fascinating.

    • kneelingbus says:

      I’ll check that book out. Scott seems to suggest that reversing or resisting the legibility imposed by a state would be a useful form of resistance for a community–I’d be interested to see that idea developed further.

  2. mtraven says:

    Uh, I think Simon is making a recommendation rather than giving a warning. Unlike Scott he is definitely on the side of administration and the state, partly because he was writing in an era which had much greater faith in its institutions than we do today.

    • kneelingbus says:

      Interesting point. I can see that somewhat in the quoted passage, and Simon’s track record supports it. On the other hand, he seems to recognize the distinction between simplifying reality for a specific purpose and believing that “the real world is mostly empty.”

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