Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Book Review: 'The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power' by Deirdre Mask

The simple street address is not only a relatively new concept, it is controversial everywhere it is implemented. Deirdre Mask has spent years traveling and discovering how people get on without addresses, how different implementations work (or don't), how addresses have figured in history, and how the digital world wants to change it all. She has put it together in her charming and engaging The Address Book.

The even/odd address system that most Americans are so accustomed to began in Philadelphia just three hundred years ago. It works, and yet Chicago had to to invent its own system 200 years later. The Japanese number blocks and not houses (and they are not alone in that). Some assign numbers by the year the building went up instead of sequentially. And many, many places still have no identifying systems in place at all. Mask uses the example of ancient Rome, a metropolis of a million, where without addresses, directions to find anyone or anything were, to put it mildly, involved. And yet, the city functioned as no other before it. Somewhat less functional was her experience in modern-day West Virginia, where a lack of street names and addresses led her to ask numerous people for directions, and still failing, had someone lead her almost there.

While that might seem unreasonable in a connected world, it does mean that locals become experts. Their knowledge grows vast, having to know people, landmarks, ruins, individual trees, people's homes, and what might have been there along the way before. Mask points out that GPS requires almost no brain power, and Americans use less and less of it make their way anywhere anymore.

In western society at least, not having a street address is fatal. It's essentially impossible to open a bank account, obtain a legitimate ID, rent an apartment, or get a job without one. This artificial prejudice is primarily a legal complication, of course. The government wants everyone to be traceable, for income tax purposes, for criminal pursuit, and for good old control. The unintended consequences include marginalizing an already marginal group, for life. Once they fall into that trap, there is rarely escape. Schemes to allow the homeless to use the address of a shelter, or vacant housing, have gone nowhere. If you don't have a street address, you are a non-entity. In the UK, organizations like the National Health Service and Unemployment services persist in using snail mail. If you don't get the letter and miss your appointment, it's curtains. You are canceled. She says: "Without an address, you are limited to communicating only with people who know you. And it's often people who don't know you who can most help you."

Address data is problematic. It has many great uses, but also dark sides. Addresses can mark people as living in bad districts, or racially dominated districts, poor or rich, religiously focused or mixed. Assumptions are assumed, loans approved or denied, interest rates lowered or raised, 911 calls answered or not, depending on the address attached. In the attempts over the years to assign addresses, people did not want them because they didn't want the junk mail, or to be followed or trackable. Freedom from street addresses is very real for some. Long before there were National ID numbers and Social Security Numbers to protest, there  were street addresses that primarily benefited the monarch, the police and the tax collector.

The Address Book wanders globally and throughout history, with Mask injecting history lessons with great storytelling abilities. She tells the stories of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, of Marie-Theresa of Austria, the slums of Kolkata, how European Jews got their last names and navigating Tokyo all by their connections to street names and numbers.

Mask says the discussion of street names and numbers can dominate local politics, shooting to the top of the agenda when up for discussion. This can be a near daily thing in New York or Paris, where renaming is all but constant. Or it can happen when a community wants to remove Confederate names in the USA, or Nazi names in Germany. Some will cling to tradition and claim they will be lost otherwise. Some don't like the replacements.  Developers will maneuver to obtain chic addresses, forcing the current user to change everything. It's always a struggle. This seems to be particularly true of England, where the original street names could be particularly descriptive of what went on there, in a very raw and crude sense. Today, those names add character, and higher valuations. Lane tops Boulevard in sales pricing, and embarrassing names can cause sales to take forever. I for one have long joked I could never live at the corner of Tinker Bell Boulevard and Goofy Gulch in a Disney development. On the other hand, living at Mortgage Heights and Default Drive is no privilege either.

For the near future, companies like Google and what3words are creating global systems that computers (of course) generate. What3words, for example, has divided the planet into three-metre (10 ft) squares, each labeled by three common words. Look up a three word combo on its website, and the map function takes you to a very specific spot that needs no further description. Sadly, it is in English, which does not work for everyone . So the company is developing other language systems, and you will have to know what language the three word are in and choose that subsystem in order for it to work. Google is doing the same thing with a seven digit code that is most unmemorable.  Unlike The Address Book, which is a delight, it kinda takes the romance and character out of it.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.