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

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Photoshopped world of genealogy

We live in a world of altered images. I watched a video about Adobe Photoshop recently that showed how a photographer created the image for a motorcycle ad. The final ad shows a racing motorcycle on a race course in country, racing along at a high speed and making a sharp turn, leaning out to balance. In fact, the whole ad was a composite of shots taken in the studio. The motorcycle image itself was meticulously altered using the photo editing software. The rider was added in the studio and then the entire image was dropped into an outdoor photo.

The thought came to me that, in a sense genealogy is getting Photoshopped. We are trying to create our own genealogical reality. The ads, the TV shows, the glitz and hype of conferences, are all aimed at changing the gritty, day-to-day reality of doing genealogical research and making it into a more glossy and acceptable image.

Having ridden my share of motorcycles, I can truthfully say that the end product ad of the Photoshop routine was both something more and something less than reality. If you want to sell motorcycles, you have to show them in a very idealized way and diminish the danger and other realities of sitting on a high powered machine in freeway traffic far from an open racing track. I am afraid that my experience with motorcycles includes racing across the desert and getting stuck in the sand at the bottom of a wash and then having to rip off my helmet because I was going to throw up from the exertion of trying get the heavy machine out of the sand. This is not exactly what you would put in a ad.

Likewise, my extensive experience, day after day, of working with my own and others' genealogy gives me a sense of dislocation from the "advertised" world portrayed in ads and other "official" communications. At the bottom of all of this "Photoshopped" image making is the very real fear that if you tell people what genealogy is really like, no one will buy your product or use your website.

But think about it. People were riding and buying motorcycles long before there was a product called Adobe Photoshop and people have been doing genealogy for a much longer time than is represented by the glitz and hype of today, so what are the real reasons people do genealogy? What are the real motivations? Why is there a need to sell a product that has been around for hundreds of years?

Motorcycles are a manufactured product. There was a time when they did not exist. Genealogy is fundamentally different than a manufactured product. It is a basic human activity that has been around for as long as the humans it chronicles. As part of our industrialized world, we have jointly created entities that have commercialized aspects of our natural human world and made them into unnatural constructs. Every day we a "sold" on products that we need to survive such as food and other basic necessities. One prime example of this modern trend is the bottled water industry. Recently, The International Bottled Water Association had a post entitled, "U.S. CONSUMPTION OF BOTTLED WATER SHOWS CONTINUED GROWTH, INCREASING 6.2 PERCENT IN 2012; SALES UP 6.7 PERCENT." Quoting from the article:
In 2012, total U.S. bottled water consumption increased to 9.67 billion gallons, up from 9.1 billion gallons in 2011. In fact, 2012’s consumption growth was the strongest it has been in five years. In addition, per-capita consumption is up 5.3 percent in 2012, with every person in America drinking an average of 30.8 gallons of bottled water last year. Bottled water increased in absolute volume more than any other beverage category in the U.S.
Who would ever expected that a huge demand could be created for a product almost everyone in the United States can get for free? Aren't we, in a sense, doing the same thing to genealogy? Making it into a product that has been "Photoshopped" into something that is a hyper-reality? It is my guess that there are people who look at statistics such as those for the bottled water industry and think, we can do the same thing for genealogy. All we need to do is "sell" it to the public and we can then report that per-capita consumption of genealogy is up year to year until we can say that every person in America has done genealogy so many hours each year. Is this what we want to do with genealogy? It certainly appears that some people would like that to happen.

Maybe there are certain types of activities such as genealogy that are their own reward. Maybe they don't need to be sold so much as they need to be experienced. Maybe we need to emphasize the spiritual and fundamental human values of genealogy. Maybe we need a "back to basics" natural genealogy stripped of all the modern additives?

Now, of course, I say all this while on my way to the biggest and glitzyest of all the genealogy conferences in the United States where I am a real participant in helping it to become exactly what it is. What is likely true is that if genealogist was to exist at all, they have to "compete" with everything else in our world, including products and forces that would entirely destroy the very basis for doing genealogy in the first place. From my perspective, we need to compete in the "marketplace" of ideas as well as the commercial marketplace. We enjoy the benefits of our modern "commercialized" genealogy, but this should never be at the expense of losing the fundamental values of genealogy as a positive universally shared human activity. Genealogy is not bottled water and it doesn't need a lot of Photoshop.

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