I picked up James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State recently and, while I haven’t gotten too deep into it yet, I found its ideas of social legibility particularly interesting. The author argues that states must make their societies legible in order to more efficiently control, tax, and more broadly impose their will upon individuals. Legibility can manifest itself in many ways: a census, tax returns, even city grids (as opposed to the organic and chaotic street layouts found in older cities). This legibility can be used for good or bad: to control the population or to more efficiently create social programs to benefit people.
Since learning about this idea I keep thinking about how it applies to our digital lives. As people’s online interactions have shifted towards centralized platforms: Instagram, Google, Twitter, TikTok, Reddit, etc., they have become increasingly legible and, if you buy the arguments of Seeing Like a State, more control-able.
More than enough has been written about the implications of these giant platforms controlling and monitoring our lives. One thing I haven’t read much of is how states and companies’ reliance on social legibility can be used as a tool against them. It seems like there are a variety of simple acts that can throw a wrench into the legibility of one’s digital life in a meaningful way. A few examples off of the top of my head:1
- Using uBlock or running a pi hole on your local network to block tracking scripts and ads.
- Using Linux instead of MacOS or Windows.
- Hosting communities on platforms like Mastodon, IRC, or Matrix.
- Using an alternative frontend to social networks like Invidious (YouTube), Nitter (Twitter) or Teddit (Reddit).2
- Publishing on your own website, especially if you use a protocol like Gemini (a simplified HTTP alternative).
I’ve been exploring a lot of these alternative digital spaces lately, mostly for the fun of it all and the wholesome communities I’ve found around them. From reading Seeing Like a State I’m realizing that these also function as a form of resistance against the hyper-commercialized internet I find myself regularly frustrated by.
Thinking about it- I’ve also realized how effective being an outlier in data can be. I frequently work with large datasets and know how frustrating it is to find oddities and outliers. Many times I simply remove these points in order to keep my abstractions simpler and easier to understand!
My hope is that by finding these small ways of increasing my illegibility, I can ensure the breadcrumbs of my digital life can be outliers- on the fringes of the norm. The hope is that these fringes aren’t worth it for large companies to attempt to normalize, commercialize, or control. It’s a small yet somehow satisfying form of personal resistance.