Structure in high-functioning systems

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Mar 2023

High-functioning systems do not always display surface level regularity. "Seeing like a state" by James C. Scott talks about this phenomenon in great detail through various examples.

The book uses the design aesthetic of Le Corbusier as a counterfactual: Le Corbusier believed that efficient systems always exhibit classical clarity and order. The physical environments he designed had an overall harmony and simplicity of form. For the most part, however, they failed in meaningful ways as places where people would want to live and work. They treated complex systems as if they could be simplified by numerical techniques, regarding shopping, for example, as a purely mathematical issue involving square footage for shopping space and traffic management as an issue of moving a certain number of vehicles in a given time along a certain number of streets of a given width.

A system's "order" is determined by its purpose, not by a top-down aesthetic view of its structure. The interior of an airplane engine, the entrails of a rabbit, and the city desk of a newspaper, all appear to be chaos if they are seen without comprehension. Once they are seen as systems of order, they actually look different.

(Content paraphrased from "Seeing like a state".)