High Modernism and Network Science

It seems appropriate, somehow, that I’m reading James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State before beginning my Ph.D. studies.

Scott warns against the dangers of a state which undertakes “utopian social engineering.” He sees a recipe for disaster comprised of four elements. The first seems innocuous: “the administrative ordering of society…by themselves, they are the unremarkable tools of modern statecraft.”

But those unremarkable tools, combined with an authoritarian state and a prostrate civil society, can lead to disaster.

The final element Scott warns of, the one that seems most relevant as I begin my studies, is a high modernist ideology. As Scott explains, high modernism is:

…a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy if science and technology. It was accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production.

High modernism is a faith that goes far beyond supporting the scientific process. It is the unwavering belief that humans have the capacity to design utopia.


Of course, not just any humans have this capacity, high modernists would have us believe. It is only those who are properly educated, trained, and credentialed. In this technocratic utopia, experts need no local knowledge. Everything can be standardized to translate from one community to the next.

“‘Fiasco’ is too lighthearted a word for the disasters” caused by high modernism, Scott argues. “The Great Leap Forward in China, collectivization in Russia, and compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ethiopia are among the great human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted.”

The high modernism which rocked the last century may be behind us. The world is to complex, too interwoven to believe in simple, standard, solutions.

Yet even as we accept the complexity of the world, we find ways to unravel it. I’m thrilled to be studying networks, an approach which allows for examining and understanding the complex systems which surround us.

So it is with the warning of Scott ringing in my head that I recently read these words about how a network understanding of biology could influence and improve medical practice:

If you suffered from manic depression in recent years, your first visit to the doctor probably started with an hour-long discussion to carefully examine your thoughts and feelings…Twenty years from now things could look quite different. Facing the same doctor, you will have a five minute discussion, just as you do in cases of simple influenza. An assistant will take a few drops of blood and you will walk home empty-handed. In the evening you will pick up the medicine from the nearest pharmacy. The next day you will wake up fresh and happy, as you did before the symptoms appeared. Both the manic and the depressive you will have been washed away.

That doesn’t sound like utopia to me. In fact, it sounds vaguely horrifying.

While there are no doubt many people with serious mental illnesses who would benefit from such an effective treatment, I’d hope it would take more than a five minute conversation before any major personality traits are simply “washed away.”

Furthermore, with such technology at our disposal, we’d be faced with serious dilemmas about what traits to live with and which to wash away. How much depression should a person accept before they undergo such drastic treatment? How soon before authoritarian states started to remove traits of outspokenness and disobedience?

None of this is to say that we should not pursue the science. It is important, fascinating work that is helping to make a little more sense of this mysterious world.

But embracing the science doesn’t mean embracing high modernism – indeed, as Scott argues, that is something we should be very wary of.


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