In a fascinating post on smithsonianmag.com last week, Joseph Stromberg explores a company called what3words and its quixotic attempt to replace the old system of geometric coordinates with simple, three-word phrases. For example, I’m writing this post at my lunch hour, from the outdoor sitting area of an office building in downtown Honolulu. If you type the building’s address, 1000 Bishop Street, into the what3words search box, you’ll find I’m at safe.buck.measures. Actually, since the the what3words system divides the earth up into small, three-by-three-meter squares, my precise location is shiny.martini.posting.
This system, as what3words CEO and founder Chris Sheldrick points out, is more accurate that traditional postal addresses, which, after all, only apply to a relatively small portion of the earth. what3words system is global. It’s also more memorable than the traditional numeric system of latitude and longitude. Later today, for example, I’m headed over to the Hawaii State Capitol at sweeten.caps.tinkle. That’s a hell of a lot succinct than 21.307598 N, 157.8574443 W.
The what3words system works because it contains a prodigious number of “addresses.” By using a vocabulary of 40,000 English words (according to Stromberg, it’s also been “translated” into Russian, Swedish and Spanish) it encompasses more than 57 million combinations of three-word phrases. The geeks at what3word have created an algorithm that associates each of these unique combinations to a specific three-by-three meter square on the surface of the earth. That allows a mindbogglingly detailed tabulation of global locations.
But does it make sense? In effect, Sheldrick and his cronies have discarded one of the most useful tools ever invented: the base-10 number system. The combination of ten symbols (representing the values 0-9) and a positional system (where the left most digit represents units, the one to its right, 10s, and the one to its right, 100s etc.) we can quickly write any particular value. For example, the number that we write as “245” represents two 100s, four 10s, and five units. We don’t have to learn a special word for 245; it’s implicit in our number system.
what3words replaces the simple base-10 system with a monstrous base-40,000 system. Granted, each word in a what3word “address” is a memorable three-digit number, but each digit could be one of 40,000 values instead of the the ten values (and symbols) used in base-10 counting. A three-digit number in base-10 represents 1,000 possible combinations (ten 100s times ten 10s times 10 units.) Moreover, the positional writing system is a simple cypher, comprehensible to almost anyone. In contrast, the three-digit number of the what3words system represents 64 million combinations (the 57 million figure applies if you don’t use any of the 40,000 digits twice in the same number.) So, the system may be precise, but it’s also more than the normal human brain can absorb. The consequence is that each of those 57 million numbers is a surd. It contains no information at all.
I’m reminded of “Funes the Memorious”, Jorges Borges’ disturbing story about Ireneo Funes, a young boy with a perfect memory. One of the inevitable consequences of a perfect memory, in Borges’ mock essay, is an infallible sense of perception. After all, memory for normal people is as much a matter of subtraction as addition. We reduce our perceptions to generalities to accommodate our limited vocabulary for specifics. Our memories require a noun and a few adjectives; Funes, with a limitless memory, has no use for generalities. Every recollection is infinitely detailed.
Borges writes: “We, at one glance, can perceive three glasses on a table; Funes, all the leaves and tendrils and fruit that make up a grape vine. He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once, and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negro the night before the Quebracho uprising.”
Out of this inconceivable memory (not unlike the memory of the computer that generates what3words’ random three-word combinations,) Funes invents a new and pointless system of numbering. As Borges explains it, “His first stimulus was, I think, his discomfort at the fact that the famous thirty-three gauchos of Uruguayan history should require two signs and two words, in place of a single word and a single sign. He then applied this absurd principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Maximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad; other numbers were Luis Melian Lanfinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins, the whale, the gas, the caldron, Napoleon, Agustin de Vedia. In place of five hundred he would say nine.”
Funes’ system of numbers is exactly like that of what3words–except there is no one with a perfect memory to contain the what3words numbers. Absent that vessel, these three-word addresses are pointless. Even the eye-blurring eight-digit lat/long of the Hawaii State Capitol has some meaning for those who grasp the principles of the system. It’s 21 degrees and change north of the equator and nearly 158 west of Greenwich, England. In other words, the numbers of the lat/long system convey information. Sheldrick’s words are meaningless, at least for humans.
The irony, of course, is that they’re useful, nonetheless. They really do offer a viable shorthand for the geography of this planet, and could actually serve a real commercial purpose. But there’s something inelegant in such an unwieldy system. I wonder, if it makes no sense, is it a system at all. Borge’s protagonist shares a similar sentiment after hearing Funes describe his monstrous numbering system. “I tried to explain to him that this rhapsody of incoherent terms was precisely the opposite of a system of numbers. … Funes did not understand me or refused to understand me.”