I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.Sometimes the depth of the changes can be measured by the fierceness of the resistance to the change. See Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1987.
We are presently in a revolutionary transition from what is commonly referred to as "traditional genealogy" to an entirely new paradigm. The casualties of this revolution are and will be those that resist the changes or are unable to adapt.
What is traditional genealogy? In past blog posts, I have argued that there is no clear definition of genealogy so how can there be a "traditional" variety? One of the most obvious indicators of this problem here in the United States is the attempt to make a distinction between "family history" and "genealogy." There is also an undercurrent of derogatory remarks about "name gathers" as opposed to genealogists. In the past few weeks, I have heard a remarkable number of comments about people who are essentially making up entire pedigrees for a variety of reasons and then there is also the proliferation of copied family trees online lacking any sort of documentation.
Now entering onto the stage of the activity called genealogy is the first and most fundamental of these changes, the automation of searching for records. Over the past year or so, I have demonstrated time and time again that using one of the newly upgraded programs, now most evident in MyHeritage.com and Ancestry.com, to construct a family tree from scratch, you can build a four or five generation, completely sourced family tree in a matter of a few hours of clicking on suggested sources. I did this about two or so years ago for the first time, starting with only my name and the name of my father and no other information. In about 45 minutes I had four complete generations of my ancestors supported by competent sources. I have since replicated this dozens of times as I have assisted people to do exactly the same thing.
I can hear the screams of outrage at this kind of statement. I assume these cries come from those who cannot fathom the possibility that a computer program could be that accurate. Well, face the facts. For many people in the United States and elsewhere, the number of online records can now establish three or more complete generations of ancestors from the available records in these large online databases. This is not an exercise in copying pedigrees, this is building a valid, sourced and documented pedigree with names, dates and even photos and stories, in a matter of hours. I should point out that this took me many months and even years to do manually before there were computers. It in only a matter of time before the accretion of additional records will enable most people, at least in the U.S. and some other countries, to extend these pedigrees automatically more generations into the past.
With a minimal amount of instruction, the generation of a valid, sourced pedigree is now within the reach of anyone who wants to spend the time and effort to create one. If a person has a pedigree already and puts it on one of these programs, the programs immediately begin providing sources for each individual. Presently, this works extraordinarily well back about two hundred years.
It is difficult for many genealogists to admit that computer programs can better perform some of the basic search functions genealogists have struggled with all of their genealogical lives. They do not view these programs as a benefit. Rather they consider them to be a threat. Their reaction to the new technology is exactly that outlined by Tolstoy and by Gleick. They immediately begin to make all sorts of excuses as to why this is not a valid way to do genealogy.
Sadly, there are many other genealogists, who, either because of physical limitations, lack of training and a more serious lack of interest, are merely unable to cope with the mechanics of entering data into a computer. They are befuddled by the programs and fail to grasp the operating systems and file structure of the programs. They are relegated to a computer-less subculture, aware of the changes but unable or unwilling to become integrated. Even more sadly, there are those who are excluded due to economic limitations. This condition reflects the greater world community which is rapidly becoming stratified, not just by economic advantage but by access to technology.
Another impediment to the acquisition of technology, particularly being able to take advantage of the online genealogical community, is the general inability to adjust to constant change. This is the one most dominant complaint I hear from those who feel overwhelmed with the changes and are fiercely resisting adapting to the environment of constant change. These again, are the casualties of the revolution.
I find it interesting that there is a constant stream of popular television series and movies that focus on the evolution of a superior form of human. Examples include the X-men, Alphas, The 4400, The Tomorrow People etc. all of whom are viewed as a threat to the rest of humanity. These shows exhibit a basic resistance to seemingly superior ability. I see the same types of attitudes exhibited in these series also present among genealogists confronted with technology they neither understand nor can cope with.
Meanwhile we have a significant number of genealogists who go about searching for their ancestors in traditional ways, generating paper copies of documents and quoting unsupported and unsubstantiated statistics about how only 5% of the worlds records are online. Even if this were true, which it is likely not, stating that fact does not prevent the use of whatever percentage of the documents are available from being used by these programs. Granted, there are many places in world where few documents can be found online. But if you think a minute you will see some interesting facts. For example from an article in the MIT Technology Review, it took about 25 years for telephones to achieve 10% market penetration in the United States. It took 30 years for electricity to achieve that same level. It took tablet computers 2 years and smartphones about three years to achieve 40% penetration. Currently, according to the Pew Research Internet Project,
As of January 2014:What is happening is essentially that this technological revolution is now spreading to genealogy in ways that just a few short years ago would have seemed impossible. There are many questions that can be asked as to how these changes will ultimately affect the traditional practice of genealogy and of course, I am here to ask those questions.
- 90% of American adults have a cell phone
- 58% of American adults have a smartphone
- 32% of American adults own an e-reader
- 42% of American adults own a tablet computer