Sensing Like a Society

Yes, that’s an expansion of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, the 1998 book that you should read now if you have somehow missed it. It makes the difference between what an individual human can recognize and what a “state” (or a bureaucracy) can recognize very clear. It also paints a vivid picture of the consequences of that difference for “the human condition” – or outcomes that we care about.  

My current project is trying to expand that line of thinking in two ways. The first is to acknowledge that there are more ways to “sense” than just to “see” – there can be different kinds of legibility and recognition. The second is to recognize social structures beyond states: markets, culture, norms for example. The key point is that what “society” senses is distinct from what individuals do – and that difference matters for outcomes. 

Here’s the big picture. I’d love comments, thoughts, questions, anything you have. [[email protected]]. I’m lucky to have Daevan Mangalmurti working with me over the summer so *progress will be made.*

How and when does information change human social dynamics? There is a widely held sense that the digital/sensing/earth observation revolution – the big data and advanced analytics, the intelligence, the communication and sharing ability – will help humans find our way out of the dangers of the end of the Holocene, the operating environment that our cultures evolved in. 

But – how exactly is this supposed to work? How is this explosion of possibility in what we can sense supposed to translate to “action” – or difference in the world? 

Through assessments handed to people who then mobilize state power, investments, cultural persuasion? 

Probably not, especially in today’s age of highly de facto distributed power, with sporadic bunching of specific negative powers (e.g. borders, censorship)? See my thoughts on Imaginary decision-makers. [Note – there are, of course, real decision-makers. The point is that those in the business of producing “impactful” data, analysis, visualisations, art, whatever shouldn’t just assume that they are there.]

More likely: This explosion of information will change outcomes to the extent that the information connects to social processes and motivates/enables them to work in new ways. To the extent that institutions, norms, and social facts – not just people – can sense what’s around us. Institutions shape the response to information – the capacity to act, and keep acting, as a group, over time. 

Hence the question: How to define “sensing as a society”? This is an important first step toward then being able to characterize “Sensing Like a Society” as it is now, and ideally identifying some ways to upgrade that sensing to be … better. More accurate about the non-human environment, and more responsive in practice to the feedback from human interactions with the non-human.

When is information “legible” for markets, cultural norms, policies and regulations?  

  • What can we have a conversation about? That’s a start of collaboration and collective action. 
  • What do we have to have a conversation about – what can we really not ignore? That’s a push to get it together in different ways. 
  • What can we haggle about? I mean this in the nicest way – what can we negotiate about in a loose, creative, exploratory way to figure out how we might share the burden of changing something? 
  • What can we trade? What can we value, weigh, exchange? 
  • What can we aim for, together – what shared goals can we orient around, like a north star or a magnetic field? Or conversely, avoid, together – what risks can we recognize, together, as being worth spending, time, effort, resources to avoid? 

Another way to look at it – is what information gets lost in the jump from individuals to institutions/norms/social facts? What is gained? What’s the difference between sensing that happens by humans-as-collectives versus humans-as-individuals? 

Questions for anybody who reads this far – 

  1. What are different ways to describe this human blind spot about the non-human environment? More writing like Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement or Timothy Morton on Hyperobjects
  2. Examples of blind spots – realities that just do not make it into collective practice/action/response? Like … the distance between scientific and financial modeling of climate risk. Or ecological interactions and the units for biodiversity markets? 
  3. Metaphors or ways of making “institutional sensing” more tangible (and distinct from just treating an organization as if it were a complicated kind of individual)?