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

Friday, February 20, 2015

Google Glass, Technology and Genealogy

Chris Dancy of BMC Software at the Innovator Summit, RootsTech 2014
One of the buzz topics of RootsTech 2014 (no that is not a typo) was the presentation by Chris Dancy at the Innovator Summit. Notably, he was wearing "Google Glasses" (now called "Google Glass"). The use of this device and other related "wearable" computer products, became the topic of more than one presentation at the Conference. It looked like a jump into a very different future for computer use in general and for genealogy in particular.

Interestingly, there was no mention of any of the wearable computer products at RootsTech 2015. In fact, in January, 2015, Google announced that all sales of their "Google Glass" product would be halted and that they would stop producing the product in its present form. [Subsequent to this post, I found out that there was a presentation at RootsTech 2015 on wearables. See Thomas' comment below.]

There is a very important lesson here and one that should be learned by genealogists: the core activities of gathering, recording and preserving family history have not changed. Technology affects the way we gather the information or do the research; it also affects the way we record and preserve our work, but the evaluation, interpretation and accurate reporting of the work we do as genealogists has not changed at all. There is a saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." (English translation of the French  "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”). This too can be said about family history and genealogy.

It is easy to become dazzled by technology and I have always been an early adaptor, probably because of my very early fascination with science fiction. I was swept into the world of computers as early as 1979 when I worked on a National Science Foundation Project compiling a Shoshone/English, English/Shoshone Dictionary on the main frame computer at the University of Utah Engineering Department. I was painfully aware of all the preliminary work that had to be done before the "computer" could take over and provide us with a printed copy of all of our work.

Among genealogists today we have those who embrace the technology for what it does and others who ignore it as irrelevant or too difficult. No matter where we find ourselves on the spectrum of technological adoption, we must recognize that the actual work of genealogical discovery is not being done by the computer programs or devices, it is being done by own effort. I wrote my Master's Thesis on an electric typewriter. I wrote my State Bar Exam for law by hand for three long days in multiple Blue Books. Those days are long gone, but the knowledge and effort that went into both of those intellectual products remains exactly the same. The fact that I now write on a large screen powerful computer has not changed the effort I have to expend to think and reason and record my ideas.

It is all too easy to assume that all changes in technology will somehow remove the effort we must put forth to do our work. I now work immeasurably harder today than I could imagine working when I was young. Almost all of that "work" goes on in my head and in the time I spend learning things I do not already know. Although I keep hoping that the next technological leap will change that fact, it seems that the promise of technology keeps moving just beyond my grasp. I still have to expend the effort to accomplish the work. This reminds me of the huge pile of boxes of documents, letters, photos and other genealogically relevant material sitting in a pile in my basement. Even though I have digitized nearly all of that huge pile, the work of organizing, classifying and preserving the digital copies has not magically disappeared. I may not be sitting in a hot field hoeing cotton, but I still have the mile long rows to contemplate.

My example from the past year's RootsTech Conference at the beginning of this post is indicative of the need to be selective and cautious in being too aggressive in viewing technology as the solution to the need to do our work.

1 comment:

  1. Great post James - I actually had a new presentation at RootsTech 2015 entitled "Wearables and Genealogy: Wacky and Wild or Worth the Wait?" on Saturday 14 February 2015. Below is a ling to the syllabus.

    At the last minute, due to Google's decision to pull Google Glass off the market, I had to adjust my presentation. My firm belief, following Seth Godin's posit that it is always the "second iteration" of something that services (i.e., not Netscape but Internet Explorer; not MySpace but Facebook), that another vendor will either take Google Glass and license it and market it without the "creepiness factor" or another vendor will come out with a similar product and the timing of such will lead to greater acceptance.