What proportion of the world do you estimate to have an address?
“What constitutes an address?” you might well query. Well, let’s say: a place of residence of any kind with a street name, a number, or way of identification.
Until recently I’m not sure I had given this question all that much thought. I have lived in a place with an address all my life; in fact, if you were to draw my life so far in address form, it might look something like this:
Can you tell what the axes are showing, without labels?
Do you think this is a useful graph?
The answer to the first question I posed – how many people in the world do not have an address – is suggested to be at least one half,1 and perhaps around 54%.2
If you, like me, have lived in a Western country all your life, you may well be surprised at this. “But how do people survive without an address?” I found myself thinking. How do they call an ambulance? Call for pizza? Get bank cards delivered? Function as a citi…
And then it dawned on me. For reasons that either they wish, or the state wishes, they perhaps don’t function as a citizen in the same way that I do. Because an address, for the individual citizen, is both a means to power, and a means to give up power. This issue is expertly explored in The Address Book by Deirdre Mask,3 who considers the advantages and the disadvantages of the state being able to locate its citizens and why, historically, this happened. Examples are:
- So that citizens can be located in order to pay taxes.
- So that emergency services can be provided to citizens.
- So that criminals (or those labelled “criminals” / “terrorists” / “enemies of the state”) can be tracked.
- To give citizens “permission” to live somewhere.
- So that services, such as water and sewage, can be provided (or not) to citizens.
- So that citizens can receive (snail) mail.
- So that citizens can be conscripted.
- So that newcomers to the area can find their way around (famously a disadvantage in wartime).
In the book, Mask tells the story of Jacques François Guillauté,4 a police officer in eighteenth-century Paris who had a dream to keep an enormous file of data on every citizen “from his birth to his last breath [sic].” Part of this would be assigning house numbers to every dwelling, supporting principles of rationality and equality:
Cities would be easy to navigate, and people easy to find. Taxes could be collected, criminals found quickly. And a peasant’s home was numbered the same ways as an aristocrat’s. The Enlightenment, whose purpose was to bring “light” from the darkness, wanted the state to see its people, all of them.3(p103)
This idea of numbering someone (and what better than their dwelling, which is one of the most concrete representations of them and hard to move) in order to render them visible is not without its issues. As the eighteenth century progressed, other cities similarly began to see the value in numbering homes, as well as carts, carriages and horses. In Geneva, painters painted numbers overnight, and people defiled and hacked away at the numbers. In the United States, doors were slammed in the faces of those who came to compile city directories. Why the distrust? Those familiar with the musical Les Misérables, the show The Prisoner – or wartime atrocities of any sort – may be way ahead of me here.
Numbering is essentially dehumanizing. In the early days of house numbering, many felt their new house numbers denied them an essential dignity. ... A Swiss memoirist visiting Austria was “horrified to see numbers on the house which appeared to us a symbol of the hand of the ruler determinedly taking possession of the private individual.”3(p104)
Of course, the address given by the state is not the only way to gain some of the advantages of mapping locations. Technology allows different, more flexible methods of pointing to places; for example, the what 3 words project, which seeks to provide a three-word reference to every 3-metre square in the world, specifies the entrance of our Cambridge office by the reference from.scars.dart.
Have you always lived somewhere with a clear, “official” address? Was it always easy to find? Would you prefer not to?
You can tweet us @CambridgeMaths or comment below.
- Mask, D. (2020). The address book. Macmillan Publishers.