There are some people you just have to meet.
If you are lucky, they are easy to find.
When I read about Professor Theodore Zeldin, I knew I had to meet him. Fortunately for me, following the feature in the Times newspaper, tracking him down to his Oxford chambers was far from tricky. His researcher was charming and a meeting was arranged.
Central Casting would approve of Professor Zeldin. The philosopher, sociologist and historian is brilliant, curious and thoughtful, with wispy white hair and a twinkle in his eye. I had been inspired by the way in which he was bringing together gatherings (feasts, in his words) of strangers, and giving them menus of conversation to work through. Our meeting was ten years ago, and yet I remember it like it was yesterday.
As I followed his work over the years, I picked up some gems;
“The unit which creates movement is the meeting of two people, and the force behind change is the encounter of two people and their intermingling, and the production of ideas which they would not have had if they had not met.”
How could a Speed Networker not fall in love with that?
In one of his speeches, I heard a line which made me stop in my tracks;
“Life is a search for people”.
It has stayed with me ever since.
The question which fascinates me is the extent to which we have the tools to find each other.
Refugees United is an organisation which exists to bring people back together. It is a family tracing service that “helps refugees, internally displaced and stateless people to search for and reconnect with their missing family or friends”. I heard about them at the excellent Wired 2011 conference, where their founder, Christopher Mikkelsen, spoke. Back in 2005, He and his co-founder (brother David) helped a young Afghan refugee, who had lost his parents and five siblings as they escaped from Kabul and the Taliban. Eventually, Christopher and David’s efforts helped Mansour to find one of his brothers. The process highlighted just how underused collaborative technology was (and still is) in this challenge, faced by thousands. A charity was born.
Last weekend, the good people at Rewired State organised a ‘hackathon’ for Refugees United in which a group of coders gave their time to create useful applications and additions to the charity’s work. The fruits of their labours can be seen here, and the gathering was yet another great example of bringing smart coders together to solve problems worth solving.
As I write, the most read story on the BBC website is the incredible tale of Saroo, the young Indian boy who fell asleep on a train and ended up getting separated from his family. Twenty five years later, from his new home in Tasmania, he has managed to locate his old home and reunite with his mother. The secret to the successful story? Google Earth, which allowed Saroo to estimate how far that fateful train had traveled, then to zoom-in to shots of where he grew up as a boy, culminating with a visit and an understandably emotional reunion.
Stories like this certainly make you think. Our ability to connect with each other has never been greater. Whether for powerful reunions or for first connections, the web is enabling us to find each other.
There are some people we have to meet.
If we are lucky, they will be easy to find.
If we are even luckier, they will find us.