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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Reflections on Technology and the Changes to Come

A recent conversation with an elderly lady (someone older than I am) made me stop and reflect on the changes in technology. This lady was expressing her concern that her advanced age and limited computer abilities were a daunting obstacle to her continued participation in the genealogical processes. As I face a major medical operation within the next week or so, I could only sympathize with her predicament. Some of us just do not have the time left in our lives to absorb the tremendous technological changes facing the world and particularly, the genealogical community.

Here are some of the factors that I see as major changes and thereby major obstacles for genealogists of all ages. But before you start pointing out that "young people" are already adept at using computers, I think I should comment on the range of skills needed to do genealogy and how those skills stack up to each age group. These will be my impressions and, of course, you may disagree.

First and foremost in the skills needed for genealogy, is the ability to read and interpret information and the patience to do so. Genealogical research requires a lot of reading. I find that this factor alone limits the ability of many people to participate in the genealogical process. This applies to both young and old. If you have been involved in genealogy for some time, you may recognize that there is also a physical component to genealogy, you have to be able to see well enough to read and do research. You may immediately attribute this challenge to the older genealogical population, but I find many, many young people who have not acquired sufficient reading skills to allow them to do any kind of serious research or reading. If reading is difficult for you, genealogy may be impossible.

I could site statistics that show the decline in reading skills, especially among the youth. Here is one entitled "To Read or Not To Read" from the National Endowment for the Arts. The conclusions of the study indicate the following:

• Americans are spending less time reading.
• Reading comprehension skills are eroding.
• These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.
This trend has serious consequences for the future of reading intensive activities such as genealogical research. Computers and technological changes do not compensate for this decline, in fact, they are a contributing factor. You can try all you want to involve the "youth" in genealogy, but if they don't have basic reading skills your efforts are likely ineffective and misplaced. Although the report I cite above is slightly outdated, the trends noticed are definitely continuing as there has been nothing done to reverse the trend. Today's students associate reading with preparation for mandatory tests and nothing else. There are notable exceptions, but those exceptions largely rely on parents who help children to develop a love for books and reading from an early age. The children of the young people who never learn to read will very likely never have that opportunity.

The next major obstacle to adopting technological change is purely physical. Limitations in dexterity, eyesight and mobility can seriously hinder the adoption of new technology. One older individual was seeking help from me with his new "tablet computer." Unfortunately, he did not have the manual dexterity to operate the touch screen. His age was a barrier to adoption of this technology by virtue of declining physical abilities. I am finding it harder and harder to read the small text on my iPhone and this brings up another challenge, the financial implications.

I recently went to have my vision tested. Yes, I need a new prescription for eyeglasses. Hmm. Guess what? To get a pair comprable to what I was already wearing cost anywhere from $800 to $1000 for lenses and frames. I could not believe that this was reasonable. So I went to a number of outlets including major warehouse distributors such as Costco. Guess what? The difference was negligible. I could get a basic pair and cut down the price, but there was a definite trade-off.

Now think about the cost of obtaining a computer, monitor and other devices and realize that the purchase is likely to have to be upgraded periodically. I hear over and over again, especially from older genealogists, that they do not have the resources to constantly spend money on new computers and upgraded programs. I am set up to do this constantly, but I realize that others are not so situated. I would likely buy computers over food, but I don't expect that many other people fall into that category.

Well, it looks like I will have to continue this topic. I need to talk about resistance to change. This affects us all, but is a serious issue now in the genealogy.


  1. Great thoughts. I fall in the middle age wise, but identify with most of the challenges you outlined either myself or in those close to me, both older and younger. What amazes me is the rapid changes even within my lifetime. I did a presentation a while back on this topic that may be of interest to you and your readers -

  2. James, thank you for the thought-provoking post.

    You pointed out, "Now think about the cost of obtaining a computer, monitor and other devices and realize that the purchase is likely to have to be upgraded periodically. I hear over and over again, especially from older genealogists, that they do not have the resources to constantly spend money on new computers and upgraded programs."

    Yes, but lack of resources is not limited to the oldest set. Large numbers in USA have been without full-time employment for years. Large numbers of the full-time employed are earning so little money they qualify for programs such as food stamps. Large numbers of the theoretically employed are part-timers (including "on-call") who are lucky to get 20 paid hours per week. Part-time employees do not have unemployment insurance paid in for them, so when laid off or injured on the job have only the possibility of meagre cash-assistance programs available to them, and only if they have dependent children (single adults are almost entirely excluded from safety-net programs).

    Vast numbers of those who do have home computers or other devices do not have access to reliable broadband internet service (and where I live, cell phone service does not work indoors) -- the persons working maybe 16 hours a week in big-box retail would not have $180/month or more for required-bundle cable and internet service.

    Libraries' public internet access is limited, the more so as they cut back on hours, staff and services. The network of FamilySearch centers is nowhere near as comprehensive and accessible (in terms of days/hours open) as some seem to believe.

    Yet website engineers toodle merrily along, making their sites less and less back-compatible in order to cater to the most affluent 1/3 of the population, and either inaccessible or much harder to use for others.

  3. Technology is a challenge for me. I reluctantly fall into the senior citizen, about to retire age group. Still, I am blessed to have found as many ancestors as I've found. I know full well that if I had been this age 30 years ago, without computers, my tree would have remained very sparse. I've found ancestors in at least 28 different states and I don't know how many counties, and I could never have done that pre-computer days.

    I dread the day I have to quit doing genealogy and possibly even quit reading, because of eyesight issues. I dread the day that I can no longer afford the subscriptions to paid sites that I have. I dread the day I can no longer afford to go to even a nearby courthouse to look for records. I am truly blessed to be able to do these things now, and Thanksgiving seems a good time to be grateful for what I can do, instead of focusing on what I can't do.