5 min read

Whose Context Counts?

High modernism favors the abstract and planned. It sees local context—complexity, contingency, individual needs—as flaws to be swept away.
Whose Context Counts?
A table-sized model of a city. Shanghai Urban Planning Centre by Liya Safina. CC BY 2.0.

I've posted before about why it's important to delegate decisions to the people impacted by them. For example, Toyota put the power to halt production in the hands of factory floor workers who were better able to see problems as they arose, and the German Army pushed local officers to be decisive in the midst of battle. This is such an effective strategy because factory floor workers and army officers tend to have much better knowledge of the local contexts where problems first arise.

In her research on governing resource commons such as forests and fisheries, Elinor Ostrom identified eight design principles that make a commons successful. One core principle is that resource users should be the ones designing the rules of resource usage. Again, this is because they have best knowledge about the local context. They know the challenges facing their commons, the patterns of abundance and scarcity, the ways others might try to exploit the system, and the kinds of edge cases that might arise.

Some of the commons Ostrom studied have been managed for the better part of a millennium. These are well-established ideas. And yet, they seem to have fallen out of favor, at least in parts of Western society. We've tended not to favor local knowledge, dismissing and trivializing it in favor of broad, abstract, generalizable knowledge.

This is one of the core arguments of James C Scott's excellent book, Seeing Like a State. According to Scott, states favor knowledge that is broad, abstract, and generalizable because it is legible to the state and its administrators.

Among many topics, Scott discusses city planning. He writes that cities can be designed to privilege either local knowledge or outsider knowledge; the more abstract and repetitive the design, the more comfortable an outsider will be:

From an administrator’s vantage point, the ground plan of Chicago is nearly utopian. It offers a quick appreciation of the ensemble, since the entirety is made up of straight lines, right angles, and repetitions. Even the rivers seem scarcely to interrupt the city’s relentless symmetry. For an outsider—or a policeman—finding an address is a comparatively simple matter; no local guides are required. The knowledge of local citizens is not especially privileged vis-a-vis that of outsiders.

Abstract grid schemas help the state provide services and utilities, but they can also facilitate violent control. In the mid-19th century, Louis Napoleon and his prefect, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, renovated Paris:

At the center of Louis Napoleon’s and Haussmann’s plans for Paris lay the military security of the state. The redesigned city was, above all, to be made safe against popular insurrections. As Haussmann wrote, 'The order of this Queen-city is one of the main pre-conditions of general [public] security'. Barricades had gone up nine times in the twenty-five years before 1851. [...] The reconstruction of Paris was also a necessary public-health measure. And here the steps that the hygienists said would make Paris more healthful would at the same time make it more efficient economically and more secure militarily.

The abstract approach to city-building was taken to extremes by urban planner Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, more commonly known as Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier described his plans for the redesign of the French city of Algiers in rapturous tones:

I drew up plans [for Algiers], after analyses, after calculations, with imagination, with poetry. The plans were prodigiously true. They were incontrovertible. They were breathtaking. [...] This plan has been drawn up well away from the frenzy in the mayor’s office or the town hall, from the cries of the electorate or the laments of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds. It has taken account of nothing but human truths. It has ignored all current regulations, all existing usages, and channels. It has not considered whether or not it could be carried out with the constitution now in force.

Leaving aside what a blowhard this dude was, what stands out to me is his disdain for democracy. That disdain isn't coincidental. It's key to his ideology. His obsession with abstract design, and his insistence that his plans were "incontrovertible", could not bear any compromise with other viewpoints, and democracy at its best is abundant with compromise. Context meets context and comes away changed, instead of one running rough-shod over another.

Essayist Paola Antonelli writes of Le Corbusier's plan that it was "also a loud demonstration of the disruptive effects of his architecture, which tended to obliterate the past in order to build a better future. Well aware of this quality, the architect called his plan the 'obus' or 'shrapnel' plan." Forget about "running rough-shod" over other peoples' contexts—Le Corbusier, if he could, would have dynamited everyone else's needs and ideas except his own.

Scott calls Le Corbusier's ideology authoritarian high modernism. High modernism is the tendency to favor the abstract, the planned, the universal. It sees complexity and contingency, edge cases and individual needs, as imperfections to be swept away. When it is paired with a force willing to do the sweeping, it becomes authoritarian high modernism.

Abstract knowledge, universal principles, and planning may be the calling cards of authoritarian high modernists, but they're not inherently bad. Used appropriately, they're vital to human flourishing. Our previous examples of the Toyota factory floor and the German battlefield demonstrate this well. Despite their emphasis on local context, these organizations also make extensive use of abstract knowledge and universal principles in the training of their workers/officers. They also plan constantly, although their plans are far more flexible than Le Corbusier's.

Critiques of high modernism should be careful not to overcompensate by undervaluing broad knowledge and central planning. Scott himself is completely clear on this point. In talking about the usage of fertilizer, he writes:

[A]n effective soil science must not stop at chemical nutrients; it must encompass elements of physics, bacteriology, entomology, and geology, and that is at a minimum. Ideally, then, a practical approach to fertilizers requires, simultaneously, a general, interdisciplinary knowledge, which a single specialist is unlikely to have, and attention to the particularity of a given field, which only the farmer is likely to have.

That same balance of knowledge is required for piloting ships:

When a large freighter or passenger liner approaches a major port, the captain typically turns the control of his vessel over to a local pilot, who brings it into the harbor and to its berth. The same procedure is followed when the ship leaves its berth until it is safely out into the sealanes. This sensible procedure, designed to avoid accidents, reflects the fact that navigation on the open sea (a more “abstract” space) is the more general skill, while piloting a ship through traffic in a particular port is a highly contextual skill.

In Engineering a Safer World, Nancy Leveson echoes the importance of combining local information with broader knowledge:

Most decisions are sound using local judgment criteria and given the time and budget pressures and short-term incentives that shape behavior. Experts do their best to meet local conditions and in the busy daily flow of activities may be unaware of the potentially dangerous side effects of their behavior. Each individual decision may appear safe and rational within the context of the individual work environments and local pressures, but may be unsafe when considered as a whole.

So we can see that the issue with broad, general knowledge is not that it is broad or general. Those things are beneficial—necessary, even. The issue is that it is that this kind of knowledge is overvalued, to the point where people may be coerced into using it, and other kinds of knowledge dismissed or forgotten. In other words, it's the 'authoritarian' in 'authoritarian high modernism'.

I will post more about authoritarianism soon. For now, it is enough to say that we should recognize the importance of multiple kinds of knowledge, and appreciate how systems of power determine which kind of knowledge gets listened to. There are so many unique and valuable perspectives out there to be learned from, but it's systems of power that determine whose context counts.