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Seeing Like A State

By Andrew Lovett-Barron
Published in Reading
February 14, 2021
1 min read

This book is a critical one for anyone studying political science, but for me, it was a vital bridge into the world of design. James Scott looks at how states (specifically bureaucracies) seek to make the resources of state more legible to state needs, ultimately for the purposes of greater control and the imposition of a normative societal framework.

For me, this book created a kind of “hold up” instinct in how I’ve engaged with the systems and stakeholders that invariably collect around larger human endeavours. I think the designer’s instinct is to advocate unerringly for the user. To say “Listen, all that is well and good, but the needs of the user are ____“. This role of advocacy is a vital function of the designer within a broader team, but it can frequently fall short when situating designs within the broader system context of that design work.

Take the context of the governmental services: it’s easy to look at an individual government employee as being obstructionist or a policy being unjust. Sometimes they are. Working with a consumer of those services, it might seem obvious what that person needs from the service they’re using. But what Seeing Like a State empowers its readers to do, is to take a step back and ask “But why isn’t it that way?” Maybe it’s because the state understands the value of that service to individual outcomes better than its users do. Maybe the bureaucracy is incentivized to create friction in order to reduce consumption of that service. These aren’t excuses for poor service provision, but this curiosity empowers a designer to interrogate the Why of negative experiences and maybe do something about it.


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Andrew Lovett-Barron

Software Designer and Researcher

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