Found in 11 comments on Hacker News
You may be interested in "Seeing Like a State" by James C. Scott, an entire book about this subject:
adolph · 2022-09-08 · Original thread
From Ch 1, Seeing Like a State By James C. Scott:

The great simplification of the forest into a "one-commodity machine" was precisely the step that allowed German forestry science to become a rigorous technical and commercial discipline that could be codified and taught. A condition of its rigor was that it severely bracketed, or assumed to be constant, all variables except those bearing directly on the yield of the selected species and on the cost of growing and extracting them. As we shall see with urban planning, revolutionary theory, collectivization, and rural resettlement, a whole world lying "outside the brackets" returned to haunt this technical vision.

In the German case, the negative biological and ultimately commercial consequences of the stripped-down forest became painfully obvious only after the second rotation of conifers had been planted. "It took about one century for them [the negative consequences] to show up clearly. Many of the pure stands grew excellently in the first generation but already showed an amazing retrogression in the second generation. The reason for this is a very complex one and only a simplified explanation can be given.... Then the whole nutrient cycle got out of order and eventually was nearly stopped.... Anyway, the drop of one or two site classes [used for grading the quality of timber] during two or three generations of pure spruce is a well known and frequently observed fact. This represents a production loss of 20 to 30 percent."

A new term, Waldsterben (forest death), entered the German vocabulary to describe the worst cases. An exceptionally complex process involving soil building, nutrient uptake, and symbiotic relations among fungi, insects, mammals, and flora--which were, and still are, not entirely understood--was apparently disrupted, with serious consequences. Most of these consequences can be traced to the radical simplicity of the scientific forest.

Azn link for HN Books:

sriku · 2021-12-22 · Original thread
I recently started reading the book titled "Seeing like a state: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed" by James C. Scott [1] which talks about how starting with a simplified idea of how to structure a complex system (i.e. a system with many interdependencies) without taking into account details at the ground level end up in disaster.

Using that idea of "legibility" that Scott proposes, not accounting for indigenous "tribal knowledge" in planning for their "betterment" does not work. Common language that reflects this happening is when such knowledge is trivialized or rejected using words like "unscientific".


quotemstr · 2021-03-29 · Original thread
Yes, I would. If there's some negative externality caused by activity X, put a price on that externality and let the market decide whether X is still worth it. Top-down bans and mandates and price controls and all sorts of other clumsy interventions in society destroy value and cause endless misery to humanity. What works is letting people decide on their own how to live their lives.

panic · 2018-05-22 · Original thread
"Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed" by James C. Scott (
hellbanner · 2017-08-07 · Original thread
For more on how legibility (through naming, street grids, single-crop farms etc) acts a prerequisite for manipulation, check out Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes To Improve The Human Condition Have Failed.

hellbanner · 2017-07-25 · Original thread
This reminds me of something from "Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed"[1], about Brazil's new capital [2].

The new order was "visually appealing" to the bureaucrats, with housing in one section, work in one section, government in the middle etc. A lot of vast open space made it so spontaneous markets & trading did not occur (due to enforced zoning and excessive sunlight instead of using shade from buildings), leading to a lower quality of life for its inhabitants.

[1] [2]

nerd_stuff · 2015-07-27 · Original thread
This book by James Scott has a very interesting perspective on the mapping of unmapped cities. The TL;DR is that an unmapped or unmappable city can't be managed from afar. In an unmapped city you must go there to manage it, in a mapped city you can sit at a desk a thousand miles away and know who's paid their taxes, etc. Paradoxically the act of mapping helps both outside help and outside exploitation.

wallflower · 2014-12-26 · Original thread
For management, it's not really about the process du jour per se. It is about standardization, frameworks, and control. Read 'Seeing like a state'

From Ruby Rogues 184 RR

"JESSICA: Alright. So, I am going to echo one of Greg’s picks because it was on my list but for a different reason. ‘Seeing like a State’ is an amazing book. And I think it’s drastically changed the way I look at software, not for the same reason as Greg talked about but because it shows why what we do is hard. ‘Seeing like a State’ talks about all the subtleties of human systems and human interactions at the local context level. It talks about all the improvisation that everyone does on a day-to-day basis and how in real human communities, we’re constantly changing the system to adjust to a slightly different reality, to corner cases we hadn’t seen before but now we have. It’s shifting and it’s not well-defined. And suddenly it makes complete sense that the hardest part of software is figuring out what we want to do. That’s it. It’s a great book."

kylemathews · 2012-02-14 · Original thread
And "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed" -
paganel · 2011-02-03 · Original thread
I particularly had the South-African photo in mind as a comparison when I made my statement. Don't get me wrong, I don't approve poverty, I've lived for a couple of years on less than $2 a day and my parents still do, it's just that the Danish photo is so devoid of life, of human interaction, that makes it so depressing for me.

Maybe I'm a little bit biased because right now I'm reading James C. Scott's "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed" (, which has a couple of chapters against modern, centralized, well-planed architecture that is designed "to look good from a plane" (he gives Brasilia as a negative example). Now, I know these suburbs weren't probably planned by the Government, but the main idea behind their design and planning is the same, i.e. to look good from a geometrical point of view.

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