Every year the amount of knowledge in the world doubles, so every year the challenge to manage it all doubles, and the challenge to communicate across specialist fields likewise increases. The Tower of Babel had nothing on what we are facing now. Trust essential to the running of communities, of nations, begins to teeter, and this is exploited by conspiracy theorists and populist politicians.
But what about an ordinary Joe like me, just trying to track someone down, maybe, where there are walls of confidentiality in some places, and in others, you can’t do a simple searching without opening the floodgates.
The following is my take on what might happen as this doubling effect continues to challenge us all.
I published this on March 1st this year, but lately I have become increasingly aware of its relevance, while trying to track down family members! If you read this and enjoy, do let me know.
The words marched across Mum’s screen : How is the old geezer?
She pushed it across.
“Tell him to phone, for God’s sake.”
I was twelve at the time, and I prided myself on my texting ability, but this was fancy: texting in alternating colours.
Mum wants you to phone, I sent back.
“Tell him it’s urgent. Tell him his brother is very sick.”
I sent another text.
We went to the hospital an hour later.
“Has he come?” Dad whispered. He was getting weaker by the day. He’d been in hospital often before, had things taken out of him and other things put in, and I’d always expected him to come out the other end, just the same as ever.
“We can keep him going, but I’m not sure for how long,” said the doctor.
Mum leaned across the bed.
“We’ve contacted your brother. We’re not sure where he is, but we’re sure he’ll come.” She spoke in a hushed tone to match his own.
Dad closed his eyes, apparently satisfied.
She gave him a reassuring stroke on the hand and planted a kiss on his cheek. But Uncle did not call, or text. I continued to send messages. My sister Babette came over from France. My father grew weaker.
“You’d better track him down,” said my mother. (It was always ‘him’ or ‘your uncle’, never has actual name.)
Babette set to work. She was eighteen, and proficient with search engines.
“We could start with Searchworks, kid,” she said. “You can help me.”
So the quest began. I soon lost track of all the different systems and techniques. Most of the popular commercial engines came up with millions of hits.
“There can’t be that many Jack Manners,” I objected.
“It’s all about getting your name noticed, kid, and that means getting things about you to come up in a search. It’s called Search Engine Optimisation.”
Mum rang everyone she knew or Dad knew. We went through all Dad’s things.
We spent two days in the hunt, and Babette taught me a lot about internet searches, such as how to use logical connectors, or how to make one database limit the search on another, and we found several sites that had links to Uncle, both nothing recent. I chased up possibilities from those links, while Babette continued the search.
And still uncle made no contact.
“He’s locked into his latest hobby, whatever it is, and he’s blind and deaf to everything else,” said Mum.
Uncle and Dad had not parted on the best of terms, Uncle calling Dad ‘dull’, and Dad calling Uncle ‘crazy’. Right now, Dad was dying, and Uncle could be just about anywhere in the world. His phone had been located in a Turkish restaurant, but that meant little. Uncle Jack was the one for Big Ideas, and when they came crashing down he was never discouraged. There would be another, even grander, waiting in the wings. And another website. We tried embassies, travel agencies, and just about everything in between. Some records were confidential, and those that weren’t were mostly overwhelming. Mum’s eyes turned cold, and her face hard as rock.
“He’s totally irresponsible. Always has been,” she said.
I loved my uncle. I loved his wildness, his devil-may-care attitude to life. I did not know I loved my father until he died.
Mum relaxed on the day Dad died, or rather, she somehow slumped. Babette became busy once more. Funeral Thursday, 3pm, she texted. Does anyone know where Jack is?
Thursday came. We walked into the dim hall. The sky was lowering. The minister read out from notes. Mum spoke tearfully about how ‘he was always kind and caring’. Babette talked about how he ‘always took an interest’ and then began to cry. Then the rain came down, bucketloads of it. We delayed the actual burial service till evening, but it never really stopped. My most vivid memory is of a circle of umbrellas around the hole, and the coffin being lowered on straps. The minister intoned the service. The sound of his voice combined with the rain on the umbrellas was curiously soporific. I stood close to mother, sheltering. I felt I was dreaming. I watched two little milky rivulets of liquid clay that had found their way onto the canvas covers surrounding the grave; how they made it tentatively to the edge and begin dripping down.
“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection and the life to come,” said the minister, reading still.
Someone had already been resurrected from this grave, so Uncle Jack said. Either their relatives hadn’t paid the rent, hadn’t cared, or had lost touch.
“They get all put together,” said Uncle Jack. “You won’t catch me being put in the ground.”
I imagined them all rising together from their common grave, and the conversations that would start up. Ouch! You’re standing on my neck! … I can’t help it! I’ve got a big fellow squashing me! … Just move, will you. I want to get my feet on the ground … I began to wonder how even God would be able to keep track of everybody.
Father’s phone began to ring. Mother snatched it from her handbag.
“Yes?” Her voice had a hard edge to it.
“How’s old stuck-in-the-mud?” It was undeniably uncle.
Mother spoke again with barely suppressed fury.
“I’ll put you onto him.”
Thrown rather than dropped, the mobile produced a clatter on the casket that cut through the service. The minister looked up, startled. I had a brief impression of mouths gaping all around us, but mother had me firmly by the hand.
“Come on, we’re leaving.”
We spent the next day or two fielding calls from the minister and other concerned people, although on reflection I suspect they were at least as curious as concerned.
“Grief strikes us in many different ways,” said the minister wisely.
The letter to Dad came a week later. Uncle had a passion, rare even in those days, for hand written letters. Mum drew a diagonal line across the address. Then across the top she wrote: Not at this address. She thought for a bit and then wrote: Try the Sunnyvale Memorial Park.
“Go post this for me, kiddo.”
I was desperately tempted to open the letter, but I didn’t. I took it to the box on the corner of the street, and dropped it in. It felt like some significant act, but of precisely what I couldn’t imagine. Everything in the world had suddenly changed for me, with Dad’s death, and Uncle’s disappearance being altogether mixed up with my new feelings. I began to jog, taking the road to the reserve, and then along by the stream to the place where the waterfalls began. Here it was beautiful, simple, shady and melodious with the sounds of birds and water. In my pocket was a folded page: the leaflet for Dad’s funeral service. I took it out and began tearing it into little strips, and dropping them, one at a time, into the flowing water. “Goodbye Dad,” I said. “Goodbye Dad.” I watched the last little strip of paper float between two rocks, tip over the waterfall and vanish from view.