The death of Queen Elizabeth II has stirred up a lot of mixed emotions. Her passing has renewed debates about the British Empire and surfaced recollections of past atrocities. Yet, as the world seeks to heal and redress the trauma of a colonial past, colonialism 2.0 is already underway.
One key aspect in the process of colonialism is imposing new names on a place. This is why reclaiming Indigenous place names is an important part of reconciliation in Canada. The City of Edmonton changed the names of voting wards in the 2021 election following consultation with a panel representing the Anishinaabe, Blackfoot, Cree, Dene, Inuit, Iroquois, Métis and Sioux nations.
But, Edmonton, and every other place on earth including land and sea, is being recolonized in the form of data and algorithmic systems. One example of this new digital form of empire building is that of UK based What3Words who is aiming to become a global standard for geolocation. Here’s how they explain their company:
“We divided the world into 3 metre squares and gave each square a unique combination of three words. It’s the easiest way to find and share exact locations.”
How did they accomplish this? An algorithm has randomly assigned the words. It’s allocated 40,000 randomly assigned words, to map 57 trillion 3 metre squares. It’s done this in 50+ languages.* These words are fixed and not subject to change - even if you don’t like your assigned geolocation name.
If you type in Edmonton into the What3Words search box, you’ll get “amount.drainage.kite”. The algorithm is selecting one 3 metre square area that the search box has deemed as central Edmonton. However, I found “accusing.petty.winters” over by the Ice District a little more interesting!
My own random clicking around on the map spawned other humorous examples, like this one for the downtown Edmonton law courts…
The words are not descriptive of anything - but the law courts example above and these three words below about a gentrifying neighbourhood in Edmonton’s inner city did make it feel like the algorithm has some local knowledge…
Here’s one for a political office in a small conservative town just outside of the city…
“Maps are cultural artefacts that are deeply implicated in the history of ideas; intrinsically linked to our conceptualisations of space; and inform our political and personal subjectivities.” (Strom)
What3Words is an example of a new kind of colonialism that uses digital technology. However, it’s built on the same extractive ideology as the old school colonial project. This new spin exerts control by claiming digital resources and using them to economic advantage. Instead of physically taking land, it’s extracting the representation of a place and then owning the legal claim to this representation in the form of proprietary Intellectual Property. It’s the same kind of ideology that led Google to map the world with Google Earth (or if you believe The Billion Dollar Code - to unethically acquire the patent and then build on it).
Should geolocation be privately held or a public good with an open standard?
What3Words is positioning itself as a new global standard and a tool for first responders. Yet, their proprietary system, if adopted as a standard, is not open. It puts a public good into the hands of a private entity. Is this app even necessary when we have 9-1-1, GIS and other proposed open standards?
Some emergency rescue experts are warning against using the app - saying it’s not only unnecessary, but also unhelpful in their efforts. This article calls into question the app’s safety when it comes to its use and how pronunciation and the mix up of certain words that sound similar can lead emergency crews to very different locations. The app can also provide a false sense of security for those who think they are covered just by downloading it, as this article explains.
Mapping has always been political. As we mark the passing of the Queen and say goodbye to one kind of British Empire, we should also be aware of new kinds of empire building that are already underway. It’s important to not only raise questions that ask if the technology works, but also the bigger ideologies that led to its creation in the first place.
Here’s a great blog post that critically examines What3Words in more detail.
If you are super into the topic of addresses and geolocation, you might find this paper interesting.
If you want to learn more about AI and digital colonialism, check out this fantastic series by Karen Hao at MIT Review.
*no First Nations languages are represented in this list at the time this post was written
By Katrina Ingram, CEO, Ethically Aligned AI
Sign up for our newsletter to have new blog posts and other updates delivered to you each month!
Ethically Aligned AI is a social enterprise aimed at helping organizations make better choices about designing and deploying technology. Find out more at ethicallyalignedai.com
© 2022 Ethically Aligned AI Inc. All right reserved.