Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Different Kind of Search

Because I have a bad habit of imagining all sorts of bizarre, improbable scenarios, I dreamt up this one: Suppose I woke up in a strange town, with no idea of who I was or where I came from, or indeed of any of my past. How do I find out?

Of course, I might go to the police or something like that, but perhaps they'd be no more helpful than myself. So I imagined I might start a blog, mostly unlike this one, where hopefully someone would recognize me. I'd start out by saying I'm most likely a missing person. Over time, as I remembered more about my past, hopefully, I'd start putting that down in the blog. Ordinary blog stuff I'd post much as anyone would, but all the identifying information I'd collect in a single post, accumulating edits, so it'd be more easily indexed by Google.

But what kind of stuff would be useful identifying information?

It occurred to me that the usual "obvious" stuff isn't necessarily all that useful in a case like this. My height and weight are not really specific enough to be a useful filter if someone else were looking for me. There are about 100,000 active missing persons in the U.S. (as of the end of 2009, according to the FBI); there must be hundreds that are my height and weight, or thereabouts. A picture would be more distinguishing, but it's hard to search for a picture of someone if all that's known is that they're missing.

So I think I'd try to post stuff that's more distinctively me. Maybe I'd somehow realize that I like to play jazz piano, or enjoy recreational mathematics, or have a rather deep interest in sports and statistics. Maybe I'd recollect some piece of poetry I'd memorized (or even composed). Along with any other more personal tidbits, I'd put them all in my Google flypaper for my old identity.

OK, obviously, I'm surpassingly unlikely to ever need to do anything like this (and it's unclear whether or not this planning would be something I'd remember if I ever did), but then it also occurred to me: Why don't we post this kind of information when we're looking for someone?

When a missing person poster is put up in my neighborhood, it always gives out some basic statistics for them, but the information is mostly generic: a photo, name, date of birth, height, weight, date missing, etc. If a person is amnesiac or doesn't wish to be found, that information is nearly useless—even the photo, since the person may have changed appearance quite dramatically.

What about favorite activities? What about peculiar habits or reflexes? What about a recording of the person's voice? Even people who have forgotten who they are, or wish others would, would not easily change such essential characteristics of themselves. And with the Web as adjunct for missing persons posters, putting up a voice recording is simplicity itself. I'm not suggesting that anything be put up that the family not be comfortable with, but lots of this stuff would violate privacy but little, and would (it seems to me) provide substantial aid in finding the missing person. I'm sure it's done to some limited extent—some posters do list some minor personal details—but a casual survey of local posters shows precious little of it. Can anyone explain why this isn't done more, if only on a voluntary basis? I know if a family member went missing, I'd want the poster to have as much trivial (i.e., non-security) detail as possible on it.