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

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Are you a modern Luddite?

In the nineteenth century, changes wrought by the industrialization of the British textile industry including the loss of skilled jobs, produced a wide ranging protest. The object of the mob action were the mills and factory machinery. In modern usage the term has come to characterize those opposed to automation, computerization and new technology in general. This sentiment was expressed recently by one of my genealogy class members who said she hated all the new technology and didn't even know how to operate her cell phone.

Rather than direct their ire at the source of the irritation, that is the changes in our cultural and social structures, the Luddite mentality identifies the machine with the change. Historically, the Luddites destroyed the machines in an attempt to stop the loss of jobs due to technological progress. Today, the same type of attitude is express in an unwillingness to adapt to new technology. I find this resistance to technological change particularly prominent among genealogists. Even though they are constantly being told that technological change is inevitable and necessary. A major segment of the genealogical community actively opposes adapting new technology, to the extent of refusing to use new computers and refusing to update software.

This manifestation of the Luddite attitude, the tendency to cling to older technology long since obsolete, is almost endemic in the genealogical community. There appears to be a decided correlation between the age of the genealogist and the adaptation to technology.  Older people tend to be more distrustful of technology, whereas my younger friends are not even aware that there have been technological changes. To them, there have always been cell phones, iPads, iPods and other such devices. The difference I observe is that younger people accept the technology but view the devices as facilitating social connectivity and are largely ignorant of the ability to find information or do research.

Older genealogists if taught, while uncomfortable with the technology, can recognize those same machines as tools to accomplish their research goals, but they are not necessarily personally motivated to use those same tools to enhance their own research. For example, I showed one of my friends some of the features of Google Translate. He was very impressed with its ability, but two or three weeks later, when I saw him again, he asked me to show him the program because he had forgotten how to use it. Rather than trying the program out or experimenting with it, he chose to ignore the program until he could find someone (me) to explain it to him.

One of the most common symptoms of the modern Luddite, is the refusal to update to a newer computer program. You would never believe how many people I know who are running Personal Ancestral File on a computer running Windows 95. At the other end of the spectrum, you cannot believe the tremendous interest shown by my youngest grandchildren in the two iPads that were brought to the family reunion. The adults, for the most part, were only mildly interested, if at all. It is too bad we can't have the best of both worlds, the interest in the technology for technology's sake of the young, coupled with the mature interest in what the technology can actually produce on the part of the older users.


  1. James

    I think you accurately characterized what I am seeing as I travel to genealogy conferences around the country. My classes for social media and technology are filled with older genealogists who want to learn how to leverage these tools for genealogy.

    One thing I don't get: why is it that many older genealogists are "dismissive" of these tools? What if they were to take the same attitude towards a genealogy book or research resource? Wouldn't they feel a duty to investigate and evaluate before dismissing the item as useless? I find that most don't use the same critical judgment when it comes to technology.

  2. To argue from another position, I don't particularly feel the need to rush headlong into the latest thing. I have learned through experience to wait until the bugs are worked out before deciding to take on something new. My husband was a computer specialist in federal civil service, so we knew all about things as they came out, but learned not to plunge into the 1.0 version of new technology or new programs. We let the other people deal with badly functioning hardware or buggy software, then when most of the problems had been dealt with, we entered the fray with fewer headaches! After all, we all saw what a winner Windows Vista has been!

    I don't feel the need for a "smart phone," nor do I feel the need to be connected 24/7. I think frankly that people ought to take time to disconnect and perhaps do some actual THINKING once in a while. And I happen to be one of those who enjoys solitude.