Where am I?
I review books a lot, for various places. But I don’t usually put reviews here. This one I wanted to write though, because the book really got me thinking, and relates to a lot of stuff I’ve written in the past - about privacy, surveillance, and being a subject of the state. I hope you like it.
Deirdre Mask, The Address Book (2021)
I grew up in suburban houses with the house number on the door, if not also spray-painted on the curb. The name of the street was on a pole at the corner, supplied by the local authorities. A world of legible addresses, that were also printed on a roll of labels in my parents’ desk drawer, for putting on any outgoing mail.
More recently I’ve found myself in a place which doesn't have such a clear address. I’m not precisely addressless, but I don't have a house number and I don't have a street name.
My libertarian streak means I'm not sorry to be a little less visible to the panopticonic state. Where do I live? None of your damn business, The Man. Unfortunately this value recently came into conflict with my desire to be in the modern world, when the courier who was meant to be bringing my new passport was unable to find me.
For many address-deprived people, the challenges can be much greater. Ambulances cannot reach them, they cannot register for government programs. At the start of this book, Deirdre Mask visits communities in West Virginia who are living without full addresses. Some of them have campaigned to get their towns and streets named, to put themselves literally on the map. But there is some resistance among their neighbors to this kind of visibility, a resistance that goes all the way back to the creation of street addresses.
When house numbering appeared in the eighteenth century in Austria-Hungary, it was slapped on people from above (and literally slapped on their houses, as government workers went around with brushes and paint and marked everyone’s property). People resisted because they knew what it meant. It did not mean easier deliveries from the local butcher. An address means the government can find you. The government that wants to tax and conscript you.
Lots of European leaders caught onto this useful way of monitoring their subjects, and those subjects did not take kindly. As Mask describes:
“across Europe, house numbers were defiled with excrement and hacked away at with iron bars. House numbering officials were beaten, sprayed with water, and run out of villages. At least one officer was murdered.”
Addresses only began to be useful for the masses with the introduction of affordable postal systems. The penny post in Britain brought a way to reach your aunt in Cheshire or your cousins who’d moved to the city for factory work, and suddenly there was a strong reason to want to be found. People happily polished up brass numbers on their houses and cut slots in their doors for mail to arrive. Although designed to help the authorities find us, addresses help us to find each other.
Mask travels to meet people who today are desperate to be found. Slum-dwellers in Delhi who are being given new gps-referenced codes that will enable them to open bank accounts and apply for government ID. For them, having no address is being, in the eyes of the world, not a citizen. They want to be seen by the state.
It’s hard to imagine having an emotional connection to a digital code the way one might to a street and town name. But perhaps they will. This sense of community and connection is one reason people fight back, hard, when their town is to be renamed or house renumbered. Their address is part of their identity. This can become a flashpoint when the politics of name origins are in play. Should the names of streets and towns with unsavory origins be replaced? What about those that are just mildly funny? (Would you buy a house in a village called The Butts?)
Most suburban planners want to avoid controversy, hence the number of anodine developments crossed by Chestnut Lanes, Oak Aves, and Maple Drives. Tree names seem bucolic and stable. The kind of thing that realtors like - and buyers value.
But in our daily lives don’t just find our way with a written address. Most of us have our own spatial system, based on recognised landmarks, and familiar distances, to make our way home. We also assume community knowledge. I'm struck by how often when I travel and ask for directions, the answer starts with some version of "you know where the shell station/Drive-in/supermarket used to be?" The point of reference itself no longer exists - and is completely useless to a newcomer. The directions depend on a shared recollection, a local-ness.
We also lose those connections, and our own spatial skills, when we outsource or wayfinding to GPS. Our brain activity that builds our maps is weakened. Although they might save us in an emergency, digital addresses like what3words “don’t provide any link between our mental maps and addressing, and removing that link stops addressing being effective”.
And written addresses are no help when they are inaccurate. As Mask recounts, somecities allow developers to pay for their building to have a tonier address than its actual frontage would suggest, such as the number of buildings calling themselves “Park Avenue” in New York when they are in fact on a cross street. The postal service gets used to it, but in emergencies it can leave people essentially as address-less as the rural West Virginians, with tragic results. As Mask describes:
“In Chicago…thirty-one-year-old Nancy Clay died in an office fire when firefighters didn’t realize that One Illinois Center was actually on the less grandly named East Wacker Drive.”
Our relationship to addresses, and addressing, undercuts our experience of the world in so many ways we barely notice it. Mask offers thought-provoking discussions on what it is to be mapped, to be findable, and how we understand our place in the world.
To find me, I’d tell you to “Go past the timber mill and you'll see a gate and if you go through that opposite the barn there’s a path and you'll see another gate…..” Her West Virginia contacts would understand.
My lane has 2 slightly different names, depending on which database is polled. It adds the bucolic charm.