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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Can Technology Save Genealogy or will it destroy it?

The title to this post is meant to be understood on a number of different levels. Considering all the world's serious problems, genealogical concerns could be considered to be "small potatoes" compared to the important issues of the day. Perhaps we should start viewing genealogy in the larger context of the preservation of our cultural heritage. During the past hundred years or so, we have seen massive efforts in the form of "cultural revolutions" that were aimed at transforming our world societies in a major way. On a huge scale, millions of people have been killed in the name of cultural cleansing. On a much smaller scale, localized ethnic and cultural groups have been effectively destroyed and absorbed into the dominant milieu. Preservation of our cultural and family history is fundamentally more than a casual pastime or hobby.

Most of those who live in the United States today have bought into the dominant "American Culture" with capital letters. One significant symptom of this adoption is the way that "Black Friday" celebrations have supplanted the traditional celebration of a treasured national holiday. For many in our country today, Thanksgiving is all about football and or shopping. It is no longer a day for quiet family gatherings and contemplation of our collective blessings. In most stores, for example, any tribute to Thanksgiving has long been overwhelmed with pre-Christmas decorations and sales.

In my last post entitled, "Can we "Twitter" family history," I touched briefly on the issue of preservation issue. But the issue of preservation is much greater than just a concern over the possibility of somehow capturing all of mindless blather of Facebook, it is a concern over the loss of basic values of family and home. Genealogy, by its very nature, looks backwards in time.

Back near the end of the U.S. Civil War on 10 November 1864, just before General William T. Sherman began his march to the sea, leaving Atlanta in ruins, President Abraham Lincoln gave a short address to a group who had come to serenade the White House. He said, in part:
Human-nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.
Today, we are fighting a cultural battle instead of one consuming our entire nation in a shooting war. We are in the midst of a cultural revolution that is so much greater and far reaching than anything we have faced as a nation and by extension, faced as a world population, that threatens the very foundations of our diversity and culture. Genealogy ties us to the past, but that past is rapidly being supplanted by the immediacy of the present. The issues raised by a technology that can transform our interactions on a personal basis go far beyond simple issues of the preservation of present personal communications, they go to the heart of cultural values that are being reduced in substance to a tweet.

When I was a lot younger than I am today, one national concern was the impact of television on the rising generation. Well, I can say that impact of television is mild compared to impact of smartphones connected to the Internet. On the one hand, genealogical research is reaping the benefits of the tidal wave of online resources but at the same time, the very basis of our interest in our ancestors is threatened by a society that puts little value on tradition and culture and more on the immediacy of instant messaging.

As we live through another holiday season, let's think of our own cultural and ancestral heritage. Let's take time to share that heritage with our families.


  1. Thanks for those important words. I come from a very large family and have a large family of my own. Hard as I try, the message of thanks is quickly lost in the tv etc. I told my wife earlier today that my worst day is better than most peoples best! Have a good Thanksgiving. Jim Landmeier

  2. Insightful and timely. Thanks for stating it so well.