A programme led by Dr Min Kyung Lee (Bryn Mawr College), currently Banister Fletcher Global Fellow at the University of London Institute in Paris
We live in a world of numbers. Weight and length are measured before birth. Footsteps are tallied. Square footage is priced. Air temperatures are calculated. Ice melt is tabulated. From the most intimate aspects of our lives to the global scales of our planetary environment, our world and lives are quantified. This comprehensive quantification project began with the European Enlightenment when scientific communities in London and Paris raced to triangulate the surface of the Earth and to determine a universal standard measure.
The Enlightenment project of triangulating the Earth’s surface, determining the prime meridian and the basis for the metric system, was an ambitious international attempt to rationalize space into a geometric grid. Quantification of terrestrial space meant translating previously understood qualities that were specific to particular bodies, objects, temporalities, and sites to universally accepted numeric quantities. While there had been multiple practices of quantification before the eighteenth century—the British imperial system among them—the institutionalization, systematization, and globalization of a standard set of numerical references marked this effort apart from all others. The claim of universality was not merely based on the inherent value of a number, but on the creation of new agencies and institutional practices that sustained and justified methods of quantification for political aims. At a moment when Britain and France were expanding its colonial empires, quantification became an expedient means not only to represent but to conquer and govern space.
The use of quantification methods extended beyond mapping. Consequences included the execution and implementation of the census, the development and use of social statistics, the growth of actuarial science, the economization and monetization of space, and the invention of financial instruments, leading to forms and practices of urban speculation that could not have been possible before. Of course, there were many aspects to life and society that were not and could not be circumscribed by counting, as well as enduring efforts to challenge the inequalities perpetuated and created by quantification. The current difficulties tracking and tracing COVID cases make evident that counting is not neutral but tied to political systems, cultural practices, and social values, and that feedback onto how our lives are defined and given meaning.
The Quantification of Urban Space aims to understand the social, cultural and epistemological consequences of this comprehensive quantification project on the urban forms and inhabitants of metropoles such as London, Paris and beyond. Scholars and practitioners will be invited to present their research and to discuss the meanings and effects of quantification in our society today. The aim is to develop a dialogue about the ways in which our urban landscape and social experiences have been and continue to be framed by numbers.