Discourse: Legibility

Mulling over the past posts I see a trend of caring about discourse. I was not really sure why that was happening, but I believe I have some insight now. Inferential distances seem like a terrible problem. I commend Eliezer on structuring the problem, but think we stopped too soon at trying to find a solution.

I *really* want a domain general way of reducing inferential distances. I want to be able to talk to hedgehogs, to have interdisciplinary discourse happen instead of being a buzzword, want people to understand why randomisation of pure strategies is a nash equilibrium without having to explain all of game theory and lose my interlocutor’s goodwill mid-twelfth sentence.

Everything that I care about depends on other humans in some form, and especially in communication lines not breaking down. Safe, ethical, reasonable, alive discourse is really important and I am  thus am grasping at ways to make discourse easier.

I think that legibility provides a way forward from stating the problem of inferential distances. I think it reduces a very broad area of potential inferential distances. If you get legibility then stuff like the invisible hand of the market, or how competing companies end up solving needs of the population, or how cities are built without central planning, or how startups figure out secrets becomes much easier to understand. Grokking legibility allows you to bypass this particular failure of folk epistemology of not grasping how there can be non-predictive control.

This seems, at the moment, to be the right way to approach the “problem of inferential distances”. Find, and share, concepts that explain an area of potential inferential distances. With that in mind, over the next two sections I first describe legibility, using as scaffold an essay by Venkatesh Rao, and then add my commentary in the second session.


Venkatesh has a great introduction to legibility. Legibility justifies a failure mode where you project “your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.”” The failure mode is caused by a desire for legibility.

The idea comes from the book “Seeing like a State” in which James C. Scott’s uses it as an illustration of what states do and how they fail.

“The book begins with an early example, “scientific” forestry (illustrated in the picture above). The early modern state, Germany in this case, was only interested in maximizing tax revenues from forestry. This meant that the acreage, yield and market value of a forest had to be measured, and only these obviously relevant variables were comprehended by the statist mental model. Traditional wild and unruly forests were literally illegible to the state surveyor’s eyes, and this gave birth to “scientific” forestry: the gradual transformation of forests with a rich diversity of species growing wildly and randomly into orderly stands of the highest-yielding varieties. The resulting catastrophes — better recognized these days as the problems of monoculture — were inevitable.

High-modernist (think Bauhaus and Le Corbusier) aesthetics necessarily lead to simplification, since a reality that serves many purposes presents itself as illegible to a vision informed by a singular purpose. Any elements that are non-functional with respect to the singular purpose tend to confuse, and are therefore eliminated during the attempt to “rationalize.” The deep failure in thinking lies is the mistaken assumption that thriving, successful and functional realities must necessarily be legible. Or at least more legible to the all-seeing statist eye in the sky (many of the pictures in the book are literally aerial views) than to the local, embedded, eye on the ground.

Complex realities turn this logic on its head; it is easier to comprehend the whole by walking among the trees, absorbing the gestalt, and becoming a holographic/fractal part of the forest, than by hovering above it.

This  imposed simplification, in service of legibility to the state’s eye, makes the rich reality brittle, and failure  follows. The imagined improvements are not realized. The metaphors of killing the golden goose, and the Procrustean bed come to mind.”

“The picture is not an exception, and the word “legibility” is not a metaphor; the actual visual/textual sense of the word (as in “readability”) is what is meant.”

Venkatesh further proposes that legibility is desired because it serves a very specific psychological function. Legibility “quells the anxieties evoked by apparent chaos.”



I have found Venkatesh’s analysis to be both good and incomplete. In what follows I try to augment the analysis with commentary on what I think Venkatesh missed.

Legibility is an interactional property

Presumably “这是废话” is gibberish to you, whilst the rest of the essay is not. “The picture is not an exception, and the word “legibility” is not a metaphor; the actual visual/textual sense of the word (as in “readability”) is what is meant.” Readability is not an object property but an interactional property, the readability of the chinese characters are as dependent on their proper formulation as on your ability to read chinese.

This means that a particular object is not legible or illegible in itself, but legible or illegible to someone.

Legibility serves a social justification purpose

If you are the one being read, the incentives may be stacked in such a way that you really wish to be legible. You can imagine various times in history in which not being legible meant death.
This explains why the same social regularities get explained in wildly different ways – there is an incentive to be legible which means slightly confabulating the original phenomenon being experienced.

Different societal configurations accept different explanations and this change in incentives has wide-reaching consequences. An example is the relatively innocent modern idea that art is self-expression.

“We have an idea that art is self-expression—which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to se his Mask, they wanted to see the God’s. When Eskimos believed that each piece of bone only had one shape inside it, then the artist didn’t have to ‘think up’ an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there — and this is crucial. When he’d finished carving his friends couldn’t say ‘I’m a bit worried about that Nanook at the third igloo’, but only, ‘He made a mess getting that out!’ or ‘There are some very odd bits of bone about these days.’ These days of course the Eskimos get booklets giving illustrations of what will sell, but before we infected them, they were in contact with a source of inspiration that we are not. It’s no wonder that our artists are aberrant characters. It’s not surprising that great African sculptors end up carving coffee tables, or that the talent of our children dies the moment we expect them to become adult. Once we believe that art is self-expression, then the individual can be criticised not only for his skill or lack of skill, but simply for being what he is.” (1)

It should be easy to see how this will shift the type of creative work that can be done.

Legibility eases the anxieties of chaos through control

According to Venkatesh’s analysis, readers want legibility because it quells the anxieties of chaos. I think this is true and incomplete. There is a question left open: why is it that legibility quells the anxiety? Why is it that chaos causes anxiety?

Chaos is the lack of the existence of a pattern. No patterns means that prediction is impossible. And under a certain mindset power and control can only be gained through predictive knowledge.

What the fans of predictive control, of legibility-through-rationalization miss is that not all control entails a better outcome. It seems like there are particular cases in which letting go of (predictive) control leads to a better equilibrium.



Legibility is (1) interactional, (2) social justificatory and (3) provides a sort of predictive control. The first thing to understand is that there is non-predictive control. By definition these things will not be legible, but can still be controllable. Apparent chaos doesn’t not mean uncontrollability or powerlessness. The second one is that legibility is situated and relational, that is, what is legible at a certain time and place may not be in another, and thus one need not see lack of intelligibility as a failing of the object of study. Chesterton said this best: “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”


  1. – Keith Johnstone, Impro, p. 78-79.










5 thoughts on “Discourse: Legibility

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