Small Pieces Unjoined
By Annalee Newitz
I THINK that ubiquitous digital surveillance and searchability have given me a weird new sense of entitlement. I feel as if I should be able to find anybody on the web, and if I can't—well, why not hire somebody to search the databases I can't access?
I caught myself having this exact bizarro train of thought the other day, when I was trying to locate an old friend of mine from high school. I did all the usual things that generally yield results and that have helped me find out all kinds of useless things about lost childhood friends. (That hardcore rocker boy is now a real estate agent! No way!)
First, I searched on his name in Google, but all I discovered was that somebody with his exact (and fairly common name) died in the Twin Towers. There was a catch, though—my old friend went by his Korean name in high school but adopted an American name in college. So I started searching on his Korean name, feeling very clever. Unfortunately, his Korean name is actually more common than his American one.
Then I narrowed my searches, looking for his names in connection with our hometown, his college and the city where he lived the last time I saw him. I searched news groups, the web, MySpace, LiveJournal and Technorati. At last, I couldn't think of anywhere else to search. That's when I had the aberrant thought: Why not just hire a private detective? Everybody's doing it—even HP!
And I'd get one that wasn't too expensive. Admittedly, my subconscious was spiked with reruns of Veronica Mars and memories of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a documentary in which the filmmaker hires private detectives to figure out who the members of the MPAA ratings board are.
But I think I hit upon this rather extreme idea—hiring a detective to find my old friend—because I've become conditioned to think that all information should be accessible. Despite my belief in online privacy and anonymity, my unexamined, knee-jerk response to the situation was that somebody should be able to get this guy's contact information for me. I mean, all I wanted was an email. I wasn't trying to get his home address or voting records.
Needless to say, I did not get a private detective, nor have I found my old friend yet. I've avoided becoming creepy, but I'm left unsatisfied. The old promises of the web, which David Weinberger famously characterized as "small pieces loosely joined," have turned out to be quite different from what we all imagined. Many of us are connected, sometimes to a degree bordering on incestuousness, but many of us are not.
The threads do not attach to each other. Names are lost in a sea of names. People fill blogs with entry after entry that never get read, never get linked, never receive comments. Certainly there are spirited local debates that bring us together online and amateur writing that's as findable as a New York Times headline, but these things are rare and getting rarer. The web is beginning to feel just like a city street: You can see all the houses, but you have no idea what's in them. Unless you're a thief.
I feel cheated by the walls that have gone up on the web—not the walls that protect my personal information, but the ones that prevent me from finding friends (real friends, not friendsters). They aren't the same walls, by the way. Walls that protect personal information should prevent people from getting access to whatever crap ChoicePoint and Visa have on you.
The walls that stand between me and my old friend are the cacophony of filtered data that the web has become. I'm sure his email is out there somewhere floating around, but because he hasn't been writing a popular blog or posting obsessively on the Linux kernel list, it's got no juice on the search engines. Because he's not socially findable, he's not technically findable either. And no, it's not because he has no email. The guy is an engineer. So much for the web breaking down barriers.
I'm going to try one last time to find him, but this time, I'll go at it from the other direction. I'll call his name and see if he hears me. Let's see if there are any holes in those walls. If you know a guy who goes by Lawrence Kim or Chong Kim and who once lived in Orange County, let me know. Especially if you are him. Let's see if my experiment works.
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com) is a surly media nerd who can find rare, out-of-print books online but can't find Chong.
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