Tom MacWright

I read The Address Book by Dierdre Mask on


I really wanted to like this book. I love addresses, and have spent a lot of time thinking about them, and adjacent to projects like OpenAddresses and OpenStreetMap. I wish this book was a romp through the history of addressing systems, lined with some of historical context, maybe a little creative interpretation and a bit of theory.

It just isn’t. It’s pretty rambling. Mask spends pages on tedious biographical detail for historical figures just to summarize their actual contribution to addressing or cities or, well, history, in the length of a few paragraphs.

The naming dynamics of places like Berlin and the controversy over street naming in the US is decently covered, but not deeply so. The stories about New York City names are fun, too, but never really coalesce into a full understanding. It’s sort of fun to stroll through different plotlines and stray far from the original subject, but that seems like most of what we’re doing here.

When it actually discusses addresses, The Address Book shows nothing more than a casual familiarity with systems. Are Japanese addresses based on blocks because of the writing system? I mean, maybe, probably not. There are other logographic writing systems that have the same general sort of typesetting and directionality, but don’t use the block system. Nevertheless, we have to rehash a vaguely Sapir-Whorf hypothesis style section about this. Which, in itself - the many issues with the commonly-held “strong” version of Sapir-Whorf and the flaws with its original formulation, don’t appear in this book.

So many times I read a sentence and asked myself… really?

Did last names really come into usage in Europe because rulers “demanded” them? I read the sources for that and the answer is “not really” - though there are cases of last names being forced upon Native Americans, I couldn’t find any substantiation that they were ever forced on Europeans. Are “Lane” addresses in the UK more expensive than “Street” addresses because they sound fancier? Doesn’t seem that way - the reference elaborates that Lane address are in more expensive sub-neighborhoods. Quakers were barely called “Children of the Light” and never called “Children of Light.”

A lot of the references in the back - which I wish were linked or numerically cited in the text instead of laid out as “blind endnotes” - referenced online articles, secondary sources, or Wikipedia. Some referenced things people said in interviews but didn’t include a secondary reference to confirm those things were true.

There’s an ill-advised tangent into housing policy which is bad. Inclusionary zoning gets a critique but even worse, Mask writes, are developers who “simply buy their way out of the obligation to include affordable housing.” In the UK and everywhere, developers don’t just buy their way out, they put money into an affordable housing fund. That fund builds affordable housing. It typically generates more units than IZ would have. I don’t know whether this is a bad-faith summary or just being uninformed, but why include this if you don’t have a basic grasp on the subject? This is combined with a bit about how London has lots of vacant apartments - stated in absolute numbers, of course, because on a percentage basis, London has about 1.9% vacant apartments. New York, for what it’s worth, considers vacancy rates under 5% as constituting a “housing emergency.”

And then there’s what3words. Seriously, what are we to do about what3words. Long what3words rant below, collapsed for those who don’t need it.

what3words rant

I guess that's where the crux of this not actually being a book about addresses comes in. what3words and Google GO Codes are fundamentally different than symbolic addresses. I could write on and on about this, but a coordinate is different than a street address. The street address belongs to the house, the door. The coordinate is a point on the earth. The street address could move if the house moves slightly. The coordinate does not. The street address corresponds to something on a street. The coordinate does not. Addresses correspond to residences to a decent approximation. Sure, there are subdivisions and sub-addresses and different concepts of housing. But coordinates don't respond to residences, at all. what3words provides 16 different word combinations to refer to my apartment building, covering different parts of the building. Six of them overlap with the apartment building next to it. How is this good, in any way? You can barely use it for directions, but it'll be apartment 4. How could you use this for anything else - which of the 16 grid squares is my mailing address?

what3words is a bad, stupid idea. It's a centrally-controlled, proprietary dataset run by a company that's little more than a marketing operation. They've cynically sold the technology in countries with fragile governments and economies. A bunch of people working for a British company are tweaking address names so that Paris addresses are cuter. They could choose other addresses, elsewhere in the world, with zero transparency and complete control from their tech offices. This is a bad look.

The whole thing is just a marketing operation, down to the obviously-planned impression they give Mask. Maybe, maybe, the world needs something like Plus Codes, which are at least open source, or geohash. Maybe that makes sense in some very, very small way. But seriously, there's no validity to this idea of what3words. If you're in the middle of the woods, and you have internet access, and you open the app and memorize the words and tell the ambulance them and spend 30 seconds explaining what what3words is, well, are you real, or a marketing story. Wait, no, even in that situation it's way to easy to say a word wrong and send the ambulance to the wrong place.

what3words isn't a replacement for addresses, at all. It's an idea that's appealing for people who haven't thought about the problem, or only care about leveraging it in some vague combing-words marketing sense.

I don't like being a grouch, but seriously, this is a bad thing. You should not build your nation's addressing system with a proprietary corporate dataset. This is a bad idea. It's like the blockchain of addressing systems. Stop taking it seriously. Please.

To reiterate, my reviews are personal, and not meant as an objective rating of a book. In particular, I bet The Address Book would be more engaging if I hadn’t encountered James C Scott, Kevin Lynch, what3words, Plus Codes, and John Snow many, many times before. If those things were new discoveries, this book would have been a useful waypoint to find more things to read, and that would have been nice.