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

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Moore's Law and Genealogy

By Wgsimon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons Transistor counts for integrated circuits plotted against their dates of introduction. The curve shows Moore's law - the doubling of transistor counts every two years. The y-axis is logarithmic, so the line corresponds to exponential growth.
Back in 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of the Intel Corporation, published an article for Electronics magazine and made a prediction that "the number of transistors (a computer’s electrical switches used to represent 0s and 1s) that can fit on a silicon chip [would] double every two years as technology advances." See Scientific American, Sneed, Annie "Moore's Law Keeps Going, Defying Expectations," May 19, 2015. After 50 years, the prediction is still holding true.

Quoting from the Scientific American article,
Another way to think about Moore’s law is to apply it to a car. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich explained that if a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle had advanced at the pace of Moore’s law over the past 34 years, today “you would be able to go with that car 300,000 miles per hour. You would get two million miles per gallon of gas, and all that for the mere cost of four cents.”
The impact that computers have had on genealogy over the past 50 years is almost beyond comprehension. Even with the huge advances we have seen already, most of the predictions for the future agree that we are still in the infancy of computer development. Even if the frantic pace of Moore's Law cannot be maintained, the changes, already built into the manufacturing system, will continue to occur.

My children grew up with computers. The oldest individuals in this computer generation are now approaching their 50s. The demographics of the genealogical community, however, still include a huge percentage of people who are uncomfortable with computers. I still help people regularly that have difficulty typing and/or managing a tracking device (mouse, trackpad etc.). This situation is sometimes referred to as the "Digital Divide" although the term is usually applied to the inequality between those who have and those who do not have access to the online resources. The factors that are associated with the non-use of technology include age, household income, educational attainment, community type, and disability. See PewResearchCenter, Internet, Science and Tech, "The State of Digital Divides (video & slides), by Lee Rainie, 5 November 2013.  Here is the video:

Of course, if you are reading this blog post, you are well into the percentage of genealogists that use computers and the Internet. But my guess is that the larger genealogical community if concentrated in that small percentage of people who still are not comfortable with computers or researching online. Even more serious is the issue of the skills needed to do sound research. When we talk about attracting a younger population to the pursuit of genealogy, we seldom add to that the skills needed to actually do an adequate job of finding and documenting ancestral lines. In this, I fear, the genealogical community is painting itself into a corner.

As we watch the huge wave of genealogical resources go online, are we really prepared to handle all that information in an intelligent way? FamilySearch, just one of many organizations who are involved in digitizing records, is reported as producing 400 million digital images a year, a number that includes the digitization of the existing microfilm records in the Granite Vault. Who is acquiring the skills necessary to research that rapidly increasing number of online records? See LDS Church News, Lloyd, R. Scott, Family history: Preserving the world's records, 12 January 2013. Remember, the entire computer industry is also advancing at an ever increasing rate.

When I teach classes, now primarily around the Utah Valley, I see that the demographic is holding. Nearly all of the attendees in my classes are well into the traditional retirement years. Even when I am teaching, what I would consider, a basic class, I find people who cannot understand references to fundamental computer operations, such as selecting a menu item or clicking on an icon. What good will do to attract a lot of "casual" users to the genealogical community who have neither the skills nor the interest to pursue serious, intensive research?

What is more disconcerting is that the rapid advances in technology will soon outpace (or already have outpaced) even the most dedicated traditional genealogist.

The challenge of the future is that technology will continue to have an even greater role in the acquisition and use of the world's records. At the same time, the genealogical community is composed primarily of those who are least disposed to utilize that same advancing technology and we are basically failing in adding in any newer, younger adherents other than in an extremely superficial way.

We have a triple challenge. We need to increase the level of technological competence of the existing competent genealogists. We need to attract new, younger adherents who have both the technological skills and the research stills necessary to do competent genealogical research and we need to raise the level of competence of those who are already online, submitting their piles of names to family trees.

This will only happen when the entire genealogy community comes to a realization of the need to have a way to pass on the high level of skills needed to do the research into the expanding online resources.

Now, a comment at the end. Whenever, I make this category of observations, I always get individuals who say to me; I am young, I do genealogy at a high level, I am computer savvy. Yes, I know. But I am talking about the overall community. Couldn't we argue that as time passes and the computer age population gets older, we will replace the old genealogists with new, computer-wise, ones? Maybe. But will it happen if we keep telling the younger candidates that genealogy is easy and fun and can be done in few short minutes on a computer?

1 comment:

  1. I created a great long post to comment here in agreement with your assessment above and then I lost it (LOL) so here's my short and sweet post to say simply that after 20 plus years in an IT career and 20 plus years in the hobby of geneology. I am no where near the researcher/documentor/historian I wish I was. I have so much to learn. Like you I see and live this gap and see the desire to close it.