15 Jan 2016
Possibly the Stupidest Idea of All-Time
“AKA Every time someone mentions What3Words, a kitten has its brain liquidised”
image credit: mygoalis.uk.com

On the circuit of technology websites I regularly read, there is one story that pops up with irritating frequency and has been doing so for the past couple of years. Said story usually involves some technology writer gushing enthusiastically about how Arse-Sum!!! this concept called What3Words is. And every time I see such an article I end up practically head-butting holes in the wall, in sheer frustration at the fact no fecker apart from myself seems able to spot the blue whale sized flaw in the concept.

For those of you blissfully unaware of What3Words is, and too lazy to click the link, let me explain. What3Words describes itself, without a hint of irony as "The simplest way to communicate location" and explains the concept as follows:

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.


Sounds great doesn’t it? An easy-to-remember 3-word 'address' for any location on the globe. So whither this blue whale sized flaw that your curmudgeonly author speaks of?

Well, the thing is that, in the What3Words system, neighbouring addresses are completely unrelated. So, where your house’s W3W address might be Camel.Rhododendron.Mousetrap, your next door neighbour on one side might live at Fork.Wallaby.Knickers and your next door neighbour on the other side at Cheese.Hat.Plunger.

I’ll just give you a second or two to contemplate the monumental idiocy of that for yourselves, and imagine that system extended to cover the entire planet, before I stick the boot in.



OK. Here we go:

One of the things that’s really useful about those boring old-fashioned postal addresses that we’ve somehow managed to get by with for all these years –and that the geniuses behind W3W so clearly disparage is that they tend to work relative to each other. So, odd exceptions aside, if I’m looking for 23 Twibble Street and I’m standing outside 14 Twibble St, it’s usually pretty safe to assume that I’m getting pretty close to my destination. If I start walking in one direction and subsequently find myself standing outside 12 Twibble Street I can likewise quite easily deduce that I am now further from my destination and need to turn round and walk back the other way.

Although not as obviously user-friendly, the same rules apply to postcodes and GPS co-ordinates. Given a desired location and a current location, it’s still relatively easy to work out how near I am to my destination and in what direction it lies.

Conventional street addresses, postcodes and GPS co-ordinates also have the teensy advantage of; being freely available, being supported at a national and international level, and being usable on things like SatNavs and mobile phone mapping apps. Whereas W3W is compatible with…​ er…​ nothing actually, that I can see, apart from the W3W website itself.

Good luck with finding that on GPS or Google Maps

Now let’s apply W3W addressing principles to that earlier example.

Again, I’m looking for 23 Twibble Street and again I’m standing a half-dozen or so doors away from it. But now, I’m outside 62 Wobblers Grove, which is next to 15 Bumfluff Avenue which, in turn, abuts 7 Floppy Boulevard…​. and so on. You get the idea.

Conversely. In my hunt for 23 Twibble Street, I might be standing outside 21 Twibble Street with the scent of victory in my delicately flared nostrils –only to subsequently find out that 23 Twibble Street is actually in another town, another country, or even on another fucking continent!

You might think that this slight flaw is the result of an [admittedly colossal] oversight by the minds behind What3Words but, believe it or not this fuckwittism is actually built-in. From the FAQ again:

Q: Why is table.chair.lamp so far away from table.chair.lamps?

A: what3words is intentionally non-sequential and non-hierarchical. By shuffling similar-sounding 3 word addresses far away from each other when we designed our algorithm, it enables us to offer a robust autosuggest tool, both in our app and API.


Or, in other words, "We deliberately made the system humanly incomprehensible, so only our 'algorithms' can make sense of it".

And therein lies the rub.

You see, if you visit W3W’s pricing page you will find lots of suitably unenforceable "mays" and "intentions" to keep the system available and free for individual use in amongst the bullshit "goal" of this insanity becoming "a global standard". Also the unstated but obvious hope that, for 'corporate use', businesses will queue up to pay for access to this lunatic scheme. In other words, they want to make money from this.

Seemingly [given the stated "global standard" ambition] they want to do so by ensuring that only W3W [via their 'algorithms'] actually know for sure where anything on the fucking planet actually is and we’ll all end up having to pay them to find those 'things' for us. Sort of like a Google for the physical world.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for lunatic money-making schemes and crazy notions. I’ve had the odd several myself in my time. So, generally my attitude to this sort of thing would be "Good luck to you!". What annoys me about W3W in particular is not only the fact that they dress their froth-lipped gibberish up as a blessing to humanity but also that, through whatever means, they seem to be able to keep the technology press coming back for more –and the trickle of uncritical, hagiographic articles about W3W, from technology pundits shows no sign of drying up.

When is somebody with a readership in double digits [so that rules me out!] actually going to call this hare-brained folly out, by standing up and pointing out that the emperor has no clothes [and no sense of direction]?

Here’s one for you. What three words would you use to describe What3Words?

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