Driven by the search engine

Do you keep in touch? I'm afraid I don't. I prefer having a wide range of friends, acquaintances and colleagues that I'll contact once in a while, out of the blue. While my silence implies there is nothing of earth-shattering importance to impart, I hadn't expected that it could help my work and put me back in touch with Dick.

I'm currently comparing different search engines on the World Wide Web. In earlier Internet days, these devices were a good way of finding web addresses of topics that interested you, but it wasn't long before people wanted to track down more than web addresses. The search engines responded by letting you search for e-mail addresses of anyone who has ever contributed to a UseNet group. If your mate from the past possessed an e-mail address and had ever sent a message to or the like, then you would be in luck.

At the same time, UseNet groups began to fill up with more and more trivia, and those Internet users who would describe themselves as "serious" stopped sending such messages. The upshot was that they and their e-mail addresses could not be traced. To overcome these problems, the engines now encourage people to add their addresses directly. Whenever I meet a new search engine that offers to find me e-mail addresses, I set it three tasks, as all good Grimm's Fairy Tales taskmasters do.

First, I ask if it has heard of me. Usually it hasn't, which is not in the least surprising. How can a machine on the other side of the world be expected to have heard of a woman in Cromarty? Second, I ask the search engine for the e-mail address of a friend who has a high Internet profile. If the friend is not found, the search engine fails.

Those first two tests are not true enquiries at all. I know the answers, and am deliberately putting the engines through their digital paces. A justifiable query would involve searching for someone who may or may not still be alive, whose name you know, whose location you don't, and whose inclination to having an e-mail address you can only surmise. The results of the test also have to be able to be measured. If I hunt for John MacDonald, how can I be assured he is the one I am looking for, and can I be confident he will remember me? Like the best fairy tale, the third and final challenge is the hardest.

It was not so easy for me either. I had to think of someone who fitted the criteria. And then Dick came to mind. He was a friend in the sixties, he taught on my course at university, and, much more unusually, he supported my first business venture with an unsecured, interest-free loan. Rather than teaching me economics, he helped me learn. I don't think they make many professors like that any more.

We haven't been in contact for more than 20 years, which made him an ideal candidate. Regularly over the past couple of months, I have keyed in his name and just once an e-mail address was spewed back by the search engine. In the spirit of research I mailed the contact, asking if he'd been teaching 30 years ago, and received a reply from a lad who apologised that he hadn't even been born then.

This week, a search engine passed the test. It found me, my Internetty friend, and also produced Dick's e-mail address. I sent off a message to check if it was really him, and from his immediate and quite incredulous reply it was clear he was the original. It's been exciting for both of us. I have been able to look back and consider how his investment in my enterprise affected my views on education, while his main interest has been how the technology made this long lost catching up possible.

No doubt in future we'll keep in touch more than once every 20 years. And then my mind moved from the technical to the educational. Horror of horrors, fear of fears; imagine the implications for teachers the world over. As we all get e-mail accounts, and the search engines become smoother, every one of our students can come back to haunt us; or we them.

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