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Below High’s lodge

July 11, 2016

Consider what3words. The concept is simple:

The world is poorly addressed. This is frustrating and costly in developed nations; and in developing nations this is life-threatening and growth limiting. | what3words is a unique combination of just 3 words that identifies a 3mx3m square, anywhere on the planet. | It’s far more accurate than a postal address and it’s much easier to remember, use and share than a set of coordinates. | Better addressing improves customer experience, delivers business efficiencies, drives growth and helps the social & economic development of countries.

For example, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago—or at least, one 3mx3m square of it—is “below.highs.lodge”. Its address, meanwhile, is “1155 E 58th St, Chicago, IL 60637“. The former of these is, in theory, considerably easier to remember than the latter; it consists of just three words, compared to four words plus three arbitrary numbers, one of 2, one of 4, one of 5 digits.

On the other hand, the Oriental Institute’s postal address carries a great deal of information. 60637: the first three digits tell you the region (6=lower Midwest) and mail distribution center (06=the one in Chicago), while the last two designate a particular region in the city. Then we get some of that information again, the redundancy helping protect against errors: IL: we’re in Illinois; Chicago: we’re in the largest city bordering Lake Michigan. The first half of the address tells us even more. St: we’re on a street, not an avenue, so we’re on a road that runs east-west. 58th: we’re 58 blocks, give or take, south of downtown Chicago, right south of 57th St. and north of 59th St. E: we’re east of downtown Chicago; 1155: by about 23 blocks. If you understand ZIP codes and the city of Chicago, you can find the Oriental Institute on the basis of its address alone, without knowing here it is in advance.

The what3words for the Oriental Institute, meanwhile, tells us basically nothing. It’s easy to remember, but entirely devoid of information. In fact, it actively seeks to ensure that its addresses offer a form of anti-information:

The what3words algorithm actively shuffles similar-sounding 3 word combinations around the world to enable both human and automated intelligent error-checking (e.g. table.chair.lamp & table.chair.lamps are on different continents). | If you enter a 3 word address slightly incorrectly and the result is still a valid what3words result, the location will be so far away from your intended area that it will be immediately obvious to the person searching or an intelligent automated error-detection system.

That’s great, if you already know roughly where something is, and you’re trying to find your way there precisely; for example, if I’m in Chicago and want to go to the Oriental Institute, I’ll notice immediately if the address seems to be in Belgium instead. It seems less helpful for things like mailing addresses, unless it functions like a ZIP code with city and state adjacent, for error-correction. I don’t expect to ever see letters addressed to “below.highs.lodge” without any further information. After all, if there were a typo, it could wind up in Bangladesh, and there where would we be?

In other words, addresses in what3words are entirely parasitic upon linguistic structures—that’s what makes them memorable—while being entirely devoid of linguistic meaning. Despite the meaning of the words conveying zero information, we remember addresses like “below.highs.lodge” by telling a story about the phrase; perhaps we fancy the Oriental Institute to be located beneath a lodge built by Mr. High. It’s the most extreme form of mnemonics I’ve ever seen. So extreme, in fact, that it’s impossible for humans to use without computer assistance; what3words is useless without the massive database of correspondences between the 57 million w3w addresses and their respective LAT/LONG coordinates. Incidentally, the developers do intend to monetize the what3words technology.

There may be some practical benefits to what3words, but it’s worth noting that its universal adoption would tend to undermine the very thing it relies on. What what3words lacks that old-fashioned addresses have, I want to say, is the ability of language to convey not information, but knowledge about the structure of the world. Linguistic structures are memorable because they represent, in some hard-to-define sense, those worldly structures; if they didn’t, what3words addresses would sound just as much like gobbledygook as do LAT/LONG coordinates. Or, rather, would sound even more absurd; LAT/LONG coordinates at least convey information directly, even if in a hard-to-remember fashion, whereas what3words addresses are just absurd strings of three random words absent an entirely arbitrary set of 57 million correspondences.

In the end, my thoughts on what3words quite resemble those of Samuel Taylor Coleridge when asked about smaller-scale mnemonic systems:

The act of consciousness is indeed identical with time considered in its essence. I mean time per se, as contra-distinguished from our notion of time; for this is always blended with the idea of space, which, as the opposite of time, is therefore its measure. Nevertheless the accident of seeing two objects at the same moment, and the accident of seeing them in the same place are two distinct or distinguishable causes: and the true practical general law of association is this; that whatever makes certain parts of a total impression more vivid or distinct than the rest, will determine the mind to recall these in preference to others equally linked together by the common condition of contemporaneity, or (what I deem a more appropriate and philosophical term) of continuity. But the will itself by confining and intensifying the attention may arbitrarily give vividness or distinctness to any object whatsoever; and from hence we may deduce the uselessness, if not the absurdity, of certain recent schemes which promise an artificial memory, but which in reality can only produce a confusion and debasement of the fancy. Sound logic, as the habitual subordination of the individual to the species, and of the species to the genus; philosophical knowledge of facts under the relation of cause and effect; a cheerful and communicative temper disposing us to notice the similarities and contrasts of things, that we may be able to illustrate the one by the other; a quiet conscience; a condition free from anxieties; sound health, and above all (as far as relates to passive remembrance) a healthy digestion; these are the best, these are the only Arts of Memory.

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