As the scientific forester may dream of a perfectly legible forest planted with same-aged, same-species, uniform trees growing in straight lines in a rectangular flat space cleared of all underbrush and poachers, so the exacting state official may aspire to a perfectly legible population with registered, unique names and addresses keyed to grid settlements; who pursue single, identifiable occupations; and all of whose transactions are documented according to the designated formula and in official language. This caricature of society as a military parade-ground is overdrawn, but the grain of truth that it embodies may help us understand the grandiose plans [for a planned society] we will examine later. The aspiration to such uniformity and order alerts us to the fact that modern statecraft is largely a project of internal colonization, often glossed, as it is in imperial rhetoric, as a “civilizing mission.” The builders of the modern nation-state do not merely describe, observe, and map; they strive to shape a people and a landscape that will fit their technique of observation.
The more static, standardized, and uniform a population or social space is, the more legible it is, and the more amenable it is to the techniques of state officials. I am suggesting that many state activities aim at transforming the population space and nature under their jurisdiction into the closed systems that offer no surprises and that can best be observed and controlled.
- James C Scott, ‘Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed‘ (1998)