Rankings periodically come out listing various cities and countries in terms of GDP or “gross national happiness” or other measure of the quality of life. The process is inherently reductive and tries to judge widely different contexts against the same measure. GDP is the simplest means of comparison, roughly calculating the sum total of economic activity in an area and averaging that amount out per person. This statistic is used at the level of country or province, but at the city scale ‘median income’ tends to be the preferred proxy of the economic health of an area. The Economist Intelligence Unit, when measuring both cities and countries, uses nine factors, health, family life, community life, material well being, political stability and security, climate and geography, job security, political freedom and gender equality. The fine print is a bit more problematic: community is defined by church attendance and union membership, family life is defined by divorce rate, and geography is defined by latitude. A God-fearing equatorial country would rank very highly in these three categories, regardless of how well those factors affect the individual citizen. There are a number of similar approaches (Human Development Index, Happy Planet Index) which aggregate different factors to get a more well rounded picture of ‘livability’ or ‘general welfare’.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the ‘popsicle index‘, coined by Catherine Fitts. It is an aggregation of a single, subjective measure: do you think a child in your neighborhood would be able to walk along to the nearest shop/stand/merchant to buy a popsicle, and return safely? It is influenced by a few things, if taken literally: are there stores or street vendors in the area? Do they sell popsicles? Do people perceive their neighborhood as safe? Affluent suburbs could potentially suffer based on 1) zoning rules displacing corner stores from their neighborhood and 2) pervasive and intense fears of relatively low crime risks.
Even the popsicle index imposes a criterion on a community from the outside. Could communities come up with their own basis for measure? Could such a mixed and heterogeneous collection of data be made legible? Should it be represented for an audience of outsiders or for members of that community? I hope to explore these topics with MFA Candidate Charles Hall Jr in Orkan Telhan’s Visual Epistemologies class.