I was in the middle of teaching a class that involved an online connection to Ancestry.com when it stopped working. As it is with most technology issues, they just happen without any warning. Screens go dark. Systems shut down and online life comes to a halt.
When I was very young, we lived in a really small town way out in Eastern Arizona. Electricity was something that came and went with the storms of Summer. Sometimes the storm was far away and sometimes close by. I remember one time the electricity went off while I was at a movie in the "downtown" section, about a half a mile or so from our house. This happened regularly and usually, we would all sit there for a while until the lights came back on. Finally, someone from the movie theater would show up with a flashlight and we would all file out onto the dark street.
It was a cloudy night with no moon and it was so dark, I could not see my feet. In our world today, it is hard to imagine how dark it can be when there is no artificial light. I knew the way home and when I started up the hill to our house, the only way I could keep going up the hill was to put one foot on the pavement and one foot on the gravel and "feel" the edge of the road. I will always remember how dark it was. This was one experience of hundreds when I have had a power outage. In our house we had flashlights and kerosene lanterns for backup.
Today, we take basic electrical service and even all of our connected appliances for granted. But if we think about it. It only takes one big storm to turn off all the electricity to wide areas of the world. Power outages are a fact of life.
Back to Ancestry.com. It took me only a few minutes to determine that Ancestry.com was the only program not working. So, I did what I have always done, ignored the problem and made due without the connection. Since I was busy teaching classes and helping patrons at the Mesa FamilySearch Library, I didn't have time to get online and investigate for a while. When I did, I posted a short notice about the problem and went on with other activities, including presenting a Webinar.
Again at the Webinar, I was reminded of the limitations of technology. The system went down two or three times and had to be restarted during the presentation. As usual, I ignored the problem and went on presenting and answering questions for those who were physically present at the presentation. Ultimately, we got back online and I finished up. The final presentation was saved and will be online shortly.
These incidents illustrate an important and fundamental principle for genealogists. More and more, we depend on technology. But technology is fickle. Our systems are infinitely more complex than the simple electrical circuits of my youth, but they are just a vulnerable to the same consequences as the lights in our small town. Today, it may be a Denial of Service or DoS attack by a misguided and anti-social miscreant, but it could just have well have been a storm, earthquake, lightning or whatever. If you want to know more about a Denial of Service attack, look at this article in Wikipedia. We may not be aware of all the iterations of these almost random attacks but the consequences are real.
So what is the lesson here? We aren't that far removed from the power failures of my youth. We talk about backing up our data and that usually means putting it in more than one location and more than one format. But there is an even more basic lesson here. We need to understand the technology to the extent that when we do our "backups" we are not just moving the data from one vulnerable storage location to another. We need to think about what we need to realistically preserve and make sure that there are copies of that information in more than just one or two locations. Perhaps this means we publish our data both in print and online. Perhaps this means that we make sure other people have access to all our files and keep them supplied with new information. Perhaps we need to spend some time thinking about whether or not we are prepared to have the lights go out.