Traditional names are drenched in meaning – so how will what3words change how we see the world?

The what3words labels Paul's Cathedral. Image: what3words.

It’s hard to imagine what it was like for the first astronauts to be so far above the ground that the shape of whole countries could be seen at once. Most of us now have grown up knowing the exact shape of the world all our lives, with pictures taken of it from the outside. For those astronauts, it was new.

But even they recognised what they saw, of course: they already had maps telling them the shape of the landmasses below.

The effort required to produce these from the ground was enormous. Starting in the 1750s, the Cassini family took 100 years to complete a triangulation survey of France and publish what we would recognise today as the first map to really get the geography right.

Before that, maps had other purposes. The 12th century Hereford Mappa Mundi represents a vision of the geography of the world, but also an understanding of history, with a progression of important places westwards (down) from Eden in the East. In other words, the world turned around Jerusalem. The nearest thing we have today to a semi-religious document that also tells you where you are is the tube map. As the physical and abstract have converged in modern maps, we’ve lost some of the sense of maps as cultural projects.

Any point on Earth can now be pinpointed to within meters and superimposed on an aerial image – but this level of precision is not easily grasped and read by the human mind. Our accuracy has increased faster than we’ve been able to symbolically fill in the gaps. You can look at your phone and see yourself standing in the middle of a field, but “where” is that exact point? A map can give you 10 digit coordinates – but those are fairly useless if you’re trying to describe the location to another person.

what3words has an interesting approach to this problem. It’s divided the world into squares, 3m along each side, and given each square a three word reference. Greenwich Observatory, for example, is “foster.complains.liked”.

The idea is that this creates a much higher level of accuracy, but in a way that’s easier to remember. It’s a human scale idea of global navigation:  three words can be communicated much easier than two long streams of numbers.

what3words isn’t a coordinate system, but describes itself as a “human interface for latitude & longitude”. Each word doesn’t modify the previous, and neighbouring squares have nothing in common. The next square over from “foster.complains.liked” is “watch.grain.spices”.

This lack of continuity is intentional: similar words are not put anywhere near each other. The idea is that, if you make a mistake, you’ll be so far off that you’ll immediately realise it. This premise may be flawed, given how wrong people can go when they blindly follow GPS; but it’s an interesting philosophy of place to demand that each location be recognisably unique from everything around it.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi. Image: UNESCO.

If you can’t quite see the point of this chances are you already have an address. what3words see itself as being for parts of the world where there is no address system, or for communities and regions that have yet to be incorporated into one. For instance, Cartiero in Brazil use the system to create a postal system in favelas, where official mapping, house naming or coding is practical non-existent.

Mongolia’s national post office is in the process of starting to use this system: its combination of vast territory and few named roads is ideal for such technology. 

w3w uses words as easy-to-remember glyphs, stripped of their meaning. They are there to piggyback on the fact we can remember and communicate thousands of concepts, but only relatively short sequences of symbols.

In a technical appraisal of the system, Professor Robert Barr of the University of Liverpool described how the system avoided place names acquiring meaning:

Certain roads, counties, towns or postal districts acquire a reputation or a familiarity based on the attributes of the place rather than the location. It is not the intention or the design of the w3w system to enable such familiarity as adjacent squares will have very different w3w combinations of words addressing them.”

In this way w3w is intentionally unromantic: addresses are atomised. There will never be a “Summer Street”, named for a word commonly found in an area’s w3w addresses, because no such word exists. It seems strange to have an address made of words that is incapable of developing meaning. There will be no w3w-as-identity: no “postcode lotteries”, no “postcode gangs”, no “90210”.

This will mean losing something: traditional names are drenched in meaning. I live in Croydon, one of London’s 32 boroughs. Croydon has a long history before it was just a part of London, making an appearance in the doomsday book as “Croindene”. Its etymology is thought to be rooted in the Anglo-Saxon for “crocus valley” – a name  suggesting the physical geography of the area and the human use of the settlement. The w3w for the centre of town is “”.

Britain is an island in northern Europe, the place where the Britons lived. Through the inward migration of Germanic-speaking tribes, Britain became less and less Brittonic, with cohesive British settlements remaining only in isolated parts of the island. The new-comers called the natives “alien”, “foreigner”. “Wælisc” became “Wealh”, became “Welsh”. Cornwall and Wallonia have the same origin. All of this is encoded into our maps – a guide to our history even if they don’t include Eden.

Creating a system that is unusable as symbolic language is an attempt to produce a purely technological and apolitical mapping technology. But there is no such thing.

In memoriam: Middlesex, shown here in Thomas Kitchin's 1769 map, no longer exists. But people still include it in their postal addresses. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In Seeing Like A State, James C. Scott describes the long emergence of the modern nation state as a process of blunting and erasing local differences to make the fringes more legible and understandable to the centre. Last names develop for taxation; maps exist to remove the need for local knowledge to navigate. If you don’t need to ask directions, the state can exercise its power without local consent.

w3w gives people living in the unmapped world the ability to make themselves legible to the global system. This is immediately useful to them. It lets postal systems expand, and deliver services much faster than would otherwise be possible, creating a powerful ad-hoc system that can fill in until someone gets around to mapping the streets.

As what3words describe the current situation:

This means that around 4 billion people are invisible; unable to report crime; unable to get deliveries or receive aid; and unable to exercise many of their rights as citizens because they simply have no way to communicate where they live.

In other words, what3words describes itself as a tool of empowerment, letting people connect themselves up to the global economy. But any means of mapping might be equally useful as a tool of oppression. w3w will have matured as a system the first time a tax bill arrives at “squads.someday.subsystems” – or a political dissident is arrested at “lifted.shoemakers.maddened”.

You can be mapped without your consent by people who mean you harm.

One risk for what3words is that a competitor open-source system could be produced relatively quickly. It wouldn’t need to be as good at separating similar addresses (or do that at all): it would simply need to exist, to have a little bit of support behind it, and be cheaper. Betamax was better than VHS – but a clever idea is no protection, if a cheaper implementation is almost as good. This could significantly set back the usefulness of any individual system: you might find yourself in “clocks.even.await” and “apple,north,book” and “#heavy#chefs#neat” at the same time.

But rival co-ordinate systems are perhaps inevitable. And while your location is physical, the idea of “place” is human. Middlesex no longer exists, but people claim to live there. Google Maps tells you different things about contested borders depending, where you view it from.

Technology can tell you where you are to ever greater precision – but we will always exist in many places, all at once.

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The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.

Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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