RootsTech 2014

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Entropy and Genealogy

In physics, entropy is a state of disorder or randomness. It is often predicted as the end state of the universe as a state of equilibrium sometimes referred to as the heat death. From a practical standpoint, one of its many meanings illustrates the need to keep adding energy to any system (the energy available for work) or the system becomes disordered. I am beginning to think that this is a perfect analogy to genealogy. All of the unsourced, disorganized family trees represent the degree of entropy in the genealogical system. Unless outside work is added to the system, the amount of entropy tends to increase.

But it also has a more sinister implication. Let's suppose that my predictions about the future of genealogy are accurate. That is, that the large genealogy programs will continue to accumulate huge quantities of source records and that the search process will become automated. The analogy doesn't fit perfectly, but suppose that anyone interested in their ancestry could simply tap into one or more of these huge online databases and have the program find their "ancestors" back any number of generations automatically. Doesn't that spell the end of genealogy as we know it?

We may scoff at such a possibility, but just short thirty years ago, the idea that I could look at a screen and see my ancestry back 19 or 29 generations would have seemed like science fiction. We may wring out hands over the fact that there are still paper records out there waiting to be digitized, but we also need to understand that nearly all of us, I mean everyone on earth, now has a computerized record online. Here is an interesting quote:
There are almost as many cell-phone subscriptions (6.8 billion) as there are people on this earth (seven billion)—and it took a little more than 20 years for that to happen.In 2013, there were some 96 cell-phone service subscriptions for every 100 people in the world. Shouting is the likely the next-most widespread communications technique. See Quartz
Keeping track of all the people in the world right now is a data processing challenge and not impossible even with our present technology. So isn't genealogy pretty well already in the downward spiral? Right now, if I found a record that was not on the Internet someplace, I could take a digitized image of it with my smartphone and upload it in a matter of seconds. It seems to me that the main reasons why all the genealogically significant records of the world have not already been digitized are mainly social and political. But there is no question that all the present inhabitants of this world are likely to end up recorded on a computer somewhere.

In a sense, as genealogists, we are now working ourselves out of work. In order to keep going, we may have to become archaeologists and paleographers.

Now, just in case, after reading this, you decide that genealogy is no longer a challenge and you should go play shuffleboard or watch your grass grow for a challenge, then stop and think about all those so-called family trees out there. How accurate can they all be? Even with our huge supplies of records, it appears that entropy is winning the battle. We can quit and watch the heat death of genealogy or we can keep working and watch things slowly improve. There is a big difference between having the records available and knowing how to use them.


  1. Sorry James but I wouldn't class records without analysis, and without the associated history, as "genealogy". An automated person-search might have a fair chance of finding an ancestor, and even some of their lineage, but it hasn't a Schrodinger's cat-in-hell's chance with the other stuff. You might be about to say that someone else could have done all that, and published it online for my search, but current evidence suggests that will never be practical, reliable, or address real historical content. ;-)

    1. I agree, but there is a caveat to what you say and that is the timing of the research. As I mentioned, I believe the most relationships of living people have been established and are online at least two generations.

    2. True, but then that's balanced by the fact that many modern relationships are no longer recorded in a marriage ceremony. My data for the recent generations of my extended family contain many such notes because I see it as a big problem for future researchers.

  2. David O. McKay, April 1935

    Speaking of the City of Zion: “…with radio in our pockets we may communicate with friends and loved ones from any point at any given moment.”
    This is actually in the book "The Coming of the Lord" by Gerald Lund on page 122. I think that is the correct page. I have shown it to friends often.
    Now if I can only find the "crank" to start my car!

  3. "In thermodynamics, entropy is a measure of the number of specific ways in which a thermodynamic system may be arranged"; so, the fun question is, How are we "Keeping track of all the people in the world right now", and how would that have to change, (with the least amount of work applied), to accomplish your design of eliminating current entropy within an ideal system of efficient record keeping? Or, from an LDS (Mormon) standpoint, how do you activate 97 per cent of church members that are not currently, effectively contributing in family history endeavors? So what can be easily done? Well, of course the answer comes from pondering on a family's personal medical and health issues. They ALWAYS actively and directly relate to personal history taking (motherhood), charts, or genograms, "a pictorial display of a person's family relationships and medical history. It goes beyond a traditional family tree by allowing the user to visualize hereditary patterns and psychological factors that punctuate relationships." All humor aside, every human being should, or ought to be properly vaccinated and properly cared for as a little child. So, what do we do? We facilitate the registration of all populations in the world, via the Family History Center. We offer a free service in which all newborns are registered at birth with digital equipment, that includes body scan, footprint, DNA blood sample, finger prints, picture photograph and medical information, all included in the Family Book of Remembrance, with scriptural references to the sacred, eternal nature of the family The Family, and I stress, the Family History Center, develops a program to continue the recordings of predetermined life events and age markers, voluntarily to all member or nonmember individuals wanting to subscribe freely to these services, with individual databases being public or private according to the wishes of the participants, categorically indexed and automatically sorted and stored for all future time, in appropriate vaults in the earth. Mass produced electronic tablets or basic computers would be gift provided to each family of interest, tied into the LDS building Internet transmission systems, to facilitate educational and training opportunities at the home level, including implementation of area neighborhood communication communities. Many communities are now helped with the basic process of obtaining clean water. Why not also provide living water on an ongoing basis, to establish the Family Tree of Life, so that little babies born will grow into good, sweet fruit?

  4. Pfft. No way can anyone be done with genealogy. There's always something to do. There may be a lot of records online but until they are ordered, sorted, and connected to the right people, there's still going to be a need for people to compile, give context, and deduce using genealogical techniques.

    Further, there's always some aspect of genealogy that can provide more tasks to do. Transcribing. Photographing. Submitting to additional websites. Learning about an area. Writing sketches. Drawing ancestors. Teaching others about your family. Checking evidence. Reading books/essays/ebooks/case studies. Going back and revisiting previously visited sites for new info. Checking errors. Digging out files. Going traveling.

    That of course doesn't count when we use genealogy for other things. I've been working on a list of dates of when knitted shawls came into existence. By using genealogical techniques, a group of us figured out that two books on a leading academic website listed as "circa 1800" were actually published in 1862 and 1882 respectively. And we've shot holes through 3 urban legends about the shawls from Orenburg, Russia using genealogical techniques. Other friends of mine use genealogy to trace the makers of their antique spinning wheels, others use it to trace their house histories, and others use genealogy to define photography dates to accurately depict the history of fashion and how it changed throughout time.

    Add to that the fact that the reason most records haven't been put online is between the cost of high quality digitization (including not only the scanning/photo but the space to host it) and the will/fundraising/budget to get it, copyright/trademark/license issues, lack of interest (if no one asks, no one ever takes that photo...), and lack of respect for history (i.e. Cass Co, Michigan destroying old land records even though the local history & genealogy societies wanted them), and of course, politics.

    Is there a downward spiral in genealogy? I think not. As more records come online/become more available that the more important genealogy skills become, because those of us with these skills can apply the knowledge better than those without, and be the useful link giving context to the record. You can search for John Smith and find any number of records, but only by deducing that John Smith of Smithville, Arkansas with a land record from 1892 is the correct John Smith one the record does the record become useful and purposeful.