Oddly Influenced

Brian Marick's podcast with transcript on Governing the Commons, with an invitation for software code base stewards to work with the Ostrom Center. page , mastodon , post


Boundary objects are an idea from the sociology of science. They are about how people use ambiguous nouns – or things – to coordinate the work of people with different backgrounds and interests (like, say, programmers and product owners). Show Notes , Transcript , post

A framework for cooperative cognition that preserves the sovereignty of Viewpoints is provided by the notion of boundary objects (Star & Griesemer, 1989).


https://media.transistor.fm/b96617d3/c410aa37.mp3 Viruses, Cancer, TDD, and "Packages": Part 1 transcript

[…] In particular, there didn’t seem to be any such tumor viruses for humans. (It turns out that we now believe that 10-20% of human cancers are caused by viruses, but that number came later.)


He focuses on nation-states as the actors responsible for the failures and argues that there are four necessary elements.

First is an administrative simplification of nature and society. For now, think of the distillation of a complex real-world situation into summary statistics or, let’s just say, a Domain Model. Such simplifications are necessary for a modern society to work well. But getting them wrong sets the stage for problems, or perhaps catastrophe.


Scott is relevant to us in software for two reasons. First, the corporation you work for is essentially authoritarian in that, until you decide to leave it, you have to obey orders or at least pretend you are. And, historically, the civil society of employees is fairly prostrate in the face of that authority.

Beyond that, computer programmers are often themselves authoritarian. If someone’s boss tells them they have to use your app, the design decisions embedded in it just *are*, in part, a design of part of that user’s social order, a part of their life. It might be good to know what abusive high modernism is and acts like, so as to avoid acting that way yourself, and to know how people react to imposed social orders, so as not to fail because you believe users will behave as you think they should rather than as they will.

https://media.transistor.fm/c33d7360/385ead82.mp3 James C. Scott’s /Seeing Like a State/, part one page

This first episode will explain the core of Scott’s ideas.

> I hope that the next applies them to software. A warning: I am finding this book hard to turn into podcast episodes. […]

11:06 – Here’s a core Distinction. Someone who wants to make a *living* off the land, wants rough, idiosyncratic, and context-sensitive measurements. They’d much rather know that the yield is consistently between 4 and 7 baskets than that the average yield is 5.6 baskets. The worst case is much more important than the average when it comes to worrying about whether you might starve some year. And farmers don’t care about acreage – they want to know how many days it will take to plow or weed a plot, taking into account the local practices for plowing and weeding.

12:28 – So let’s finish this first episode by looking at three of Scott’s four central terms.


The first is “synoptic”, which is related to the word “synopsis” or a summary. But Scott’s use picks up on some connotations of the dictionary definition. The first is that a synoptic view is a *comprehensive* view, a summary of all – and only – the important parts. Another connotation of “synoptic” is “giving an account of events from the same Point of View”. That point of view is that of the Sovereign. The point of view of the people on the ground is not relevant. What the sovereign cares about – like the amount of lumber – is what counts, not the points of view of people who lived near the forests.


13:13 – Another of Scott’s key words is “legible”. His metaphor is that the messiness of reality is *condensed* and *simplified* to something like a map. Maps don’t completely describe the landscape; they are purpose-specific. A road atlas is focused on showing how you can get from one place to a far-away place. A topographical map shows elevation because that matters if you’re trying to hike from one place to another. People driving in cars don’t care about elevation, mostly, so road atlases mostly don’t show it. Another way to think about Scott’s use of “legible” is that it adds a layer of indirection. Administrators don’t deal with the facts on the ground; they deal with a formal representation – a narrow representation – of those facts. It’s as if you’re reading a description of a scene in a novel; you know what you’re reading leaves a lot out, only including things that support the author’s purpose going forward.

“synoptic” and “legible”

14:12 – Both “synoptic” and “legible” have something to do with seeing, and there’s a strong metaphorical component to them. The administrative state generally thinks of itself as *above* the society, looking down on it – a sort of God’s Eye View. Or it envisions itself as looking outward from the center.

Satellite image of Brasilia courtesy Axelspace Corporation, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons jpg

14:33 – This has consequences, as the aesthetics of orderliness or elegance can dominate usefulness. A famous example is the city of Brasilia, built from scratch in 41 months, starting in 1956. From above, it looks something like a bird or an airplane. Its plan is really much prettier than old cities that just grew every which way. However, it was – and maybe still is – famously a bad place to live. For example, “There *is* a square. But what a square! The vast, monumental Plaza of the Three Powers […] is of such a scale as to dwarf even a military parade. In comparison, Tiannanmen Square and Red Square are positively cozy and intimate. If one were to arrange to meet a friend there, it would be rather like trying to meet someone in the middle of the Gobi Desert. […] And if one did meet up with one’s friend, there would be nothing to do. […] This plaza is the symbol of the state; the only work that goes on around it is the work of the ministries.”. But it sure does look cool from an airplane.


16:26 – This weird reliance on aesthetics will come up again in the next episode.