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

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Science Fiction and Genealogy

Oh well, it was inevitable. Technology has progressed to the point where it is impacting stodgy old genealogy. (Where have you been for the past ten years or so? Technology has been impacting genealogy for a long time.) Of course, I knew that, but I have been reading science fiction for the past 50+ years and what is interesting is that science fiction did not predict the kinds of technological changes that impact genealogy. In fact, we are living in a post-science fiction world with changes no one could imagine in the science fiction of the past. No wonder so many of us, old and young, are having a difficult time adjusting to the almost daily technological changes. Even those people who tried to make money predicting the future have failed us.

As genealogists, what is our stock in trade? Information. In fact, we have been working on the same pile of information for the past couple of hundred years. What has changed? Our way of obtaining, storing and communicating that same information we have always pursued. But not all of us have embraced the new technology at the same rate. We have pre-technological folks living right along side early adopters with all the latest gadgets.

Of course new science fiction keeps being written and the most recent science fiction adopts all of today's gadgets. If you want to see the unforeseen changes, go back and read science fiction written before 1970; back when computers were huge and expensive and no one really believed you could call almost anyone on the telephone while standing in the middle of Grand Canyon. As I write this post on my laptop, I am far from home and simply had to open my computer to be connected to the entire electronic world.

So how has technology really impacted genealogy? Fundamentally, I think the biggest change is my ability to almost instantly access huge amounts of very specific information about thousands of families in my file. Speed does not always equal progress but the ability to search through files with thousands of individuals in a few seconds makes a huge difference as to how you manage your data and what you are able to learn from it. But I am still seeing people with huge notebooks crammed with hundreds of pages of photocopies and documents. When I ask about a particular person, they start thumbing through the pile so they can answer the question. Each question I ask creates the same flurry of searching through the pile. It is like the recurring story in science fiction where the primitive society is confronted with aliens in space ships. The cultural rift is enormous.

Why didn't science fiction foresee the huge changes in information technology? We shouldn't be at all surprised because the changes were unforeseen for some of the same reasons that we have people who are unable or unwilling to move from a paper based technology to a digital one. Believe me, I have gotten into that discussion often enough. The justifications for remaining with a paper based genealogy system are exhaustively enumerated; from a simple, "I prefer paper" to impassioned tirades about the evils of technology and changes in genealogy in particular. There are also those who will immediately disqualify any opinions I have on the subject due to the fact I am writing on a computer for those who use computers. Please do not assume I am denigrating your use of paper. I am merely commenting on the effects of the changes.

The real issue isn't whether or not to personally use the new technology, the question is whether or not you can still do genealogy without adopting the newer technologies either now or at some point in the future? How you answer this question depends on how you define genealogy. Let's suppose you were a budding genealogist and you were one of my relatives. You are a "purist" and decide to eschew any and all technology in favor of beautifully organized notebooks full of documents. How will you learn of my existence and all the work I have done and will do? It is unlikely that you will discover my work and even less likely the I will discover yours. We could live in the same town, attend the same church and even work in the same company, but we would never guess the other's interest in genealogy unless by chance, we happened to meet and talk about genealogy. What is missing is the convergence created and maintained by the revolution in information technology. No matter what I do online, if you do not go online, you will never see it or hear of it.

On the other hand, if my hypothetical relative decided to embrace the technological changes and get online, he or she would almost immediately run into me and my work. Why is that? Am I so presumptuous to think that the genealogical world revolves around me? Not so. I am merely confident that searching on any of our mutual relatives will ultimately lead everyone related to me and me to them. In genealogy, literally, no man is an island who is on the Internet.

What is rapidly happening in genealogy is that these historically created barriers are being breached by the constant movement to online engaged individuals. The changes are inevitable as the new generation of genealogists will likely never think of the quaint old idea of writing things down on paper. Genealogy will then have become science fiction.


  1. Agree 100% with you on the power of technology.

    As to SF's predictive ability, 1966 might be a better cut-off line, as I believe Classic Star Trek had the Enterprise crew retrieving information quickly from the computer, and I don't recall too many episodes with paper documents. Though Yeoman Rand did often carry a clipboard.

  2. Mr. Tanner: Your blog is enjoyable to read, and I have done so for a long time. However, would you reconsider your stand on paper versus technology? I have been doing research for 30 years, plus. To find my grand uncle has been extremely difficult. The county clerk still required a notarized paper application. I still used paper to write the letter, and I used a paper money order to pay for the record. I use the computer constantly. The issue is not paper or technology at all. If I read a paper book or a Kindle book, the outcome is the same. Please do not belittle researchers' tools. Respectfully, Anonymous