The inexplicable science of happy coincidences

Learning to understand what it is to be human, how we see what we see, how we observe the patterns of all our lives and act upon them is big science.

It is the vastness of neuroscience, psychological behaviour patterns and the understanding of how personal experiences affect our everyday. It is a massive subject, so complicated that it will no doubt baffle the smartest and most learned academics for many centuries to come.

There is however an exciting insight available to all of us today in the shape of a mapping tool –


What3words is based on the simple premise of mapping the whole world into a series of 3m squares. Each square has a unique 3 word address and the grid offers us an incredibly simple way to map the whole world, so that everyone and everywhere can now have a unique address.

It is so simple and so obvious that I predict, in a very short time, it will be absorbed into all our lives as a piece of tech.

However, I believe it offers something much more than its straightforward functionality. It is, by design or otherwise, profoundly human.

An apparently analogue design solution to a digital problem, What3words offers a level of human insight that may provide some very clear feedback on the way our minds work, that may lead to a more profound understanding of our brains’ wiring.

Two observations.

The first thing you may notice is a tendency to make up stories from the 3 words, whether this is a learned habit or acquired from experience, I will leave to the scientists, but it is a definite observable phenomenon.

When opening the what3words app people look for patterns, they look for meaning, they look to remember, they do many things sharing and discussing the words, but the common thread is that they all look, they are quickly engaged and they are all intrigued by, what it is all about… words.
How exciting is that? In an image driven, media obsessed society that we are becoming excited about words again. Why?

We are having our natural creativity tickled, our sense of fun is triggered and a whole new human response to tech is set off in the form of asking questions, looking for patterns and seeking meaning which we, deep down, know is probably not there, but we feel compelled to search for.

Why are these words where they are? Who chose them? Well the answers are that nobody chose them, it is a clever algorithm that decided the fate of all the many trillions of combinations of words quite a few years ago.

The software seems to makes us ask questions.

The second observation that plays out, is that against all rational probability there always seems to be a square with meaning, a square with relevant words to the place we are looking at on the what3words map.

As a designer I quickly found the words ‘font’, ‘studio’, ‘community’ and ‘together’ all within metres of my work desk, all personally significant words for me today, and yet there they are. There are over a million words in the English dictionary which makes the statistical probability that I will see these words pretty unlikely, even if I did have a huge vocabulary which I don’t. The statistics aren’t quite in the lottery result stratosphere but they are still very improbable.

What I find fascinating is not the mathematics of improbability, we could leave that to the Intergalactic Hitchikers, but the human bias to see what we want to see, the insight that we are searching for meaning in places that we already know don’t hold ‘the answer’.

To my mind, all this is a beautiful thing that we are so questioning, so optimistic, and that we are so much more potentially creative than we ever give ourselves time to consider. Finally we are finding day to day practical solutions to technological problems that are fun, engaging and above all human.

It is genius and it gives me great hope for all our futures.

Si Homfray

The app is in the app store as ‘what3words’

What3words underpins the Hathersage Hope Valley Fringe event on April 28th.

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