Seek and Ye Shall Find
One of the most famous lines of all poetry (originally written in Persian a millennium ago, but first translated into English in 1859) comes from a book called the Rubaiyat, and is about a “moving finger,” which “writes, and, having writ, moves on” – and nothing we can do can bring that finger back, to erase or change anything. That particular digit is, of course, the notorious Finger of Fate.
But the poet, Omar Khayyam, and even his relatively modern translator, Edward Fitzgerald, were both living in the immeasurably long eon before there were computers. In our own time, it is only too easy to revise or delete what our own fingers have written. In fact, my own favorite command (imagine, Omar, giving “commands” to your “moving finger”!) is “UNDO.”
But, of all the wonders which can be performed by computers – and even more miraculous to me than “UNDO” – it is the capacity to “Search” and “Find” which ranks at the top of my personal list of man-made marvels. People who’ve grown up in the computer age, and have no memory of the “good old days,” can hardly imagine how much easier and faster what we used to call doing “research” has become. It might have taken weeks, or longer, to track down a single fact which is now freely available in response to a few keystrokes. Books, papers, libraries, card catalogs – these were the sources – possibly widely scattered – in which you had to dig to find what you were looking for.
Now – except for those greedy souls who seek to exploit such wonders for their own profit, by devising ways to charge for it – information, or “data,” has become the cheapest and most abundant commodity in the world.
But, if only it were as easy to search our own brains as it is to search the brains of our computers! I’m sure all the world’s technical geniuses are working on it – but right now, there’s no way we can issue commands to the extremely powerful thinking machines within our own skulls in the same easy way we can control our computers. There are no “SEARCH” or “FIND” commands which that mysterious object in my head understands, or will respond to almost instantaneously, the way that almost equally mysterious little box does – the one I can hold in my hand.
When Jesus, in his “Sermon on the Mount” (as reported by Mathew) told us to “Seek, and ye shall find,” the injunction was inspirational, not a guarantee. But the theme of searching permeates our culture. Some famous stories even involve the search for a secret password. A good example is the so-called fairytale, collected by the Brothers Grimm, called “Rumpelstiltskin,” which concerns the knowledge of how to spin straw into gold. That knowledge is possessed by an imp-like creature, who is nameless all through the story, until the climax, which hinges upon discovering his name.
But Saint Mathew – and even the Grimms – would probably be astonished to know that we now have something called a “Search Engine.” Just who invented that term I have been unable to discover – but the thing itself can be traced back no farther than 1990. Yes! Before 1990, all searches had to be conducted without engines. That includes the well-known searches for the Holy Grail, for the Fountain of Youth, for El Dorado – even for the White Whale and the Northwest Passage – to say nothing of the tragic searches for lost explorers, like Sir John Franklin, who disappeared with his whole crew in the Arctic in 1847, but whose wife spent the rest of her own life organizing futile expeditions to look for him.
And meanwhile, all over the world, hunters, both human and animal, seek their prey. Children are playing games based on searches, such as Hide and Seek, Blind Man’s Buff, Hunt the Thimble, and Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button; Geologists roam the Earth in search of oil and ores; Botanists seek new species, Micro-Biologists probe the secrets of the genome, in quest of new ways to prolong human life; Archaeologists dig for keys to the human past; Spiritualists seek to establish contact with those who have died; and Astronomers have a whole Universe to search for all that is still unknown.
And to cap it all, people everywhere are seeking inwardly. As one writer put it (whom modesty forbids me to name):
“I’m in search of myself –
Have you seen me anywhere?“