Putting people in boxes

When I was in high school I had a conversation with a singer, a man with an incredible range. I was sitting at a piano, and he demonstrated that he could sing notes well below the bass clef. Then he said “Not bad for a tenor, huh?”

That struck me as bizarre. He was obviously a bass, but he called himself a tenor. Or rather, he was capable of singing bass. He was capable of singing tenor as well. But you don’t usually call someone a tenor and a bass. Singers fit into four boxes: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Maybe you subdivide the boxes, such as first and second tenor, but you only get to pick one box.

We all tend to put people in boxes, but the urge is particularly strong with children and bureaucrats: children because they have a limited view of the world, and bureaucrats because, well, pretty much the same reason.

Imagine this singer trying out for a choir. Suppose he’s given a form to check which part he sings and he checks both bass and tenor. A director might ask what he means, and respond “Great, we can put you on different parts depending on what we need.” But an audition coordinator might say “Look, Mack. Don’t try to be funny or imagine that you’re some unique snowflake. Which part do you sing?”

It’s not that hard to explain that you can sing two voice parts. Other combinations of abilities are harder to explain. Here’s an example from an earlier post:

Take an expert programmer back in time 100 years. What are his skills? Maybe he’s pretty good at math. He has good general problem solving skills, especially logic. He has dabbled a little in linguistics, physics, psychology, business, and art. He has an interesting assortment of knowledge, but he’s not a master of any recognized trade.

If you’re a programmer but there isn’t a box for programmer, you have to pick another box, but you might not fare well by the evaluation criteria of that box.

Not fitting into traditional categories makes you stand out, for better or for worse. It can make you highly valued. It can also make you a thorn in an administrator’s side, or simply someone to be ignored.

James Scott uses the term illegible for people who don’t fit into boxes. Venkat Rao summarizes the idea in the glossary of his blog. His summary is a bit dense, but it’s worth reading carefully.

A system is legible if it is comprehensible to a calculative-rational observer looking to optimize the system from the point of view of narrow utilitarian concerns and eliminate other phenomenology. It is illegible if it serves many functions and purposes in complex ways, such that no single participant can easily comprehend the whole. The terms were coined by James Scott in Seeing Like a State. Illegible systems are generally more robust than legible ones, and Scott’s model is mainly about the failures caused by imposing legibility on an initially illegible reality.

I’d like to hear the terms legible and illegible more widely used. I’ve had conversations with Daniel Lemire, for example, where he would use one of these terms and immediately clarify a discussion.

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9 thoughts on “Putting people in boxes

  1. “Scott’s model is mainly about the failures caused by imposing legibility on an initially illegible reality.”

    Isn’t the illegible person a failure? At least for the task at hand?

    Also I don’t understand how illegible systems are more robust than legible. Illegible systems seem to represent the “Feature bloat” when several features are added to a software that obscure its main purpose.

  2. The illegible person is not necessarily a failure, but the observer may fail to see the illegible person’s value. For example, a school might tell Shakespeare he’s unqualified to teach English literature because he doesn’t have enough academic publications.

    (The literature example isn’t entirely a joke. I read of an award-winning novelist who was denied tenure. English profs are supposed to write about novels, not write novels.)

    For another example, a school might say that Bill Gates is unqualified to teach business courses because he doesn’t have a college degree or because he’s a philanthropist.

  3. Bureaucrats feel a very strong urge to codify competencies. A fun example is that Ken Thompson, who invented C, is not allowed to program in C at Google without passing a test (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/04/21/ken_thompson_take_our_test/).

    As a first approximation, it sounds like a good idea for the individual to become legible. However, it does not sound so good when you reflect on the fact that it means you are replaceable, or treated as such, in a post-industrial era where replaceable parts are becoming increasingly cheaper. Of course, Ken Thompson is not legible or replaceable. And he is tremendously valuable.

  4. What’s interesting about singing is that most men are neither tenors nor basses: they lie in the middle, in the baritone range. I do too. I love choral music, and would have loved to have sung it more, but I simply can’t sing the top of the tenor range nor the bottom of the bass range. Choral music is therefore not open to me, unless I were to sing a solo part. Which I can’t get into because I don’t have a good enough voice.

    I’ve always thought this was a bit weird.

  5. I agree that most of us do put people into boxes. I think this is down to our first impressions of people when we first meet them and it is an important factor in society.

    We all learn in life, that you never really know someone until you live with them. I have also found that if you think the best of people, you will be pleasantly surprised

  6. Singers have a range that they can sing, and a subset of that range that they can sing well. Composers know this, and are careful not to demand too much of a singer when they’re out of the mid range.

    Just a thought, but that may be why this guy called himself a tenor.

  7. I think the point is that composers usually write parts for either bass or tenor voices. It may be sometimes possible to sing two parts in a single production, but wouldn’t you have problems with having two sing two things simultaneously?

  8. I don’t think “legible” and “illegible” partition the set of skilled people.

    What it seems like to me is that “pigeonholing” is about creating partitions of a set: you’re either male, xor you’re female, xor ∅.

    But some people belong to more than one subset, or to no subset at all.

    We can add additional structure to our model by supposing costs/tradeoffs. In your bass/tenor example one might assume constant “energy” meaning assume that everyone gets a fixed range of notes and only the centre varies. That inaccuracy goes away if talent or practice can increase the range. But maybe everyone has a fixed amount of talent to be divided among mutually exclusive subsets, or a fixed amount of practice to divide among mutually exclusive subsets. (You might want to say something about complementary skills such as floor gymnastics and diving.) Now we’ve posited relations between different subsets.

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