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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Science Fiction and Genealogy

I have been a science fiction fan since I was about 7 or 8 years old. I can still remember the first science fiction book I ever read. It happens to be:

Asimov, Isaac. 1950. Pebble in the sky: science fiction. London, England: Sidgwick & Jackson.

The edition that I read was most likely one of the many published in the United States about the same year. Here we are more than 60 years later. Now we can read the "old" science fiction and see how many things they got "right" and how many things they got "wrong." We have to remember that the people who wrote much of the old science fiction (maybe not so much the folks shown above on the Amazing Stories cover) were smart and thought about the future a lot. Did they really get things right?

What does this have to do with genealogy? Just about everything. Let me give a little background.

If you go back and read science fiction from the 40s and 50s, you immediately see a disconnect between the future portrayed by the writers and what we are living today. In some ways, such as space travel, we are hopelessly behind where we should have been according to the science fiction writers. We have no colonies in space, no settlements on Mars or Venus and nothing at all on the Moon. We certainly have not discovered evidence of interstellar travel and have no way to speed up the time it takes to get to the planets around another star. Star Gates, Warp Drive, and a lot of other inventions are still waiting to be discovered. 2001 and 2010 have both come and gone.

However, in other ways, such as computers, we have access to devices that were never dreamed of by the early writers. Not one early science fiction writer predicted the rise of the personal computer. I am not talking about 60s and 70s TV series like Star Trek. You can always read computers into Star Trek, but the "computer" was the whole Enterprise and the com units or communicators were merely dumb cell phones with no memory. The closest the writers came to computers was imagining extraterrestrially made devices that were "wonderfully compact calculation machines." 

See Norton, Andre. 1954. Space pioneers; stories. Cleveland: World Pub. Co., Gallun, Raymond Z., "Trail Blazer," p. 92.

The essence of the impact of computers is our ability to almost instantly talk to anyone anywhere on the face of the earth (within a few very practical limitations). In addition, the computer power sitting on my desktop right now is so far above what could have been imagined just a few years ago, that we can hardly begin to speculate how technology already in the pipeline to be sold will continue to affect our lives. One brief example: the iMac Pro: the new iMac scheduled for shipment by the end of this year will have a 27-inch Retina 5K display, up to 42MB cache, up to 4TB SSD, up to 18-core Xeon processors and up to 22 Teraflops of graphics computation. No one could imagine that you would be able to buy that much computer power for a home use.

From our near-sighted and parochial genealogical viewpoint, we are still living in the 19th Century. I still talk to people who profess an interest in genealogy that eschew the use of cell phones and have no usable computer skills. We have major genealogical companies that resist using optical character recognition or crowdsourcing indexing. Granted the changes in technology have come faster than can comfortably be assimilated, but what if the world had changed as much as the science fiction writers had predicted?

I was caught up in a group discussion recently about fraud. Many of the participants expressed concern and admitted they had been defrauded by such mundane issues as robocalls and other telephone solicitations. As a culture, we are so naive that we cannot even defend ourselves against the dangers inherent in worldwide communication, much less take advantage of the opportunities it affords us.

For example, I just received a solicitation to "present" at a major genealogy conference. Hmm. If I did so, I would spend my time, my money and my effort to attend the conference and end up talking to, at most, a few dozen, perhaps a few hundred people. That would be that. I would be one of dozens of other presenters and my presentation would quickly be forgotten. However, let's take a different tack. Suppose I decided to do a webinar for the BYU Family History Library. Preparing that webinar will take me about the same amount of time it would take to prepare a presentation for the major genealogical conference. I would not spend any time at all traveling since I live 10 minutes from the Library. Because of the new technology, I can do my presentation at any time convenient to me with no substantial cost or effort. Once the webinar is recorded, we can upload it to Google on the BYU Family History Library YouTube Channel and I can get hundreds or even thousands of views. What is more, I can do several of these presentations every month not just once a year at the large conference. I can compress a hundred years' worth of conference presentations into a few months of work and anyone, any place in the world (practically speaking) can watch my presentations at a time convenient to them and save the same time and money they would have spent attending a conference. In addition, many other people can take advantage of the same technology. The number of viewers of our combined webinars exceeds any possible projection of the attendance at any possible genealogy conference.

Granted, there are other reasons for attending a genealogy conference, but perhaps sitting in a classroom is no longer one of those reasons. By the way, the longstanding genealogy conference in England, "Who Do You Think You Are?" is being discontinued. See "Who Do You Think You Are? Live! Conference to Cease." I happen to see a connection here.

Let's look at some other aspects of genealogy that will change due to technology. I regularly go to the BYU Family History Library to help patrons. Most of the time, the patrons have a specific genealogical question they would like me to answer. Let's suppose that they sent their questions to me electronically. I can now look at their portion of the Family Tree and see the problem and see if there is a solution. Let's further suppose that I have a solution. I could simply get together with the person online and through video conferencing techniques "talk" to them while they were working on their home computer and "solve" the problem. Maybe, they would like to meet in person. I could still have looked at their problem before meeting and we could expedite the solution and spend some additional time in training and networking.

This week, and other such websites, have added millions of newly digitized records to their online collections. Most genealogists are oblivious to these newly added records. From my experience, few genealogists even know that the online collections exist. I am consistently making researchers aware of digital collections that they have never heard of. In fact, I am continually learning about new additions to online websites myself and yet there are some genealogists who are more concerned with formalities than substance. They are still worried more about how to present their "findings" than how to use all of the technological changes that are happening all around them.

As I expressed in a recent post, my genealogical efforts have taken on the nature of a conversation with the world. Perhaps you would like to join in the conversation?

What else is happening? If I will be using Google Fibre with an iMac Pro, I can't even begin to guess what I can do. I am now living far advanced of what I used to read as science fiction. 


  1. How about Dick Tracy and his watch?


    1. Well, the Dick Tracy Watch was a two-way radio, not a computer. What it did do was create an interest in the miniaturization of circuits.

  2. On page 122 of the book "The Coming of The Lord" author Gerald Lund writes the words of David O. McKay, then second counselor to President Heber J. Grant of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "....improve the means of communication until with radio in our pockets we may communicate with friends and loved ones from any point at any given moment." This was said in 1935!

  3. You mention "By the way, the longstanding genealogy conference in England, "Who Do You Think You Are?" is being discontinued."

    That shows one of the reasons it is ending, people did not know what it was and what to expect.
    It was not a conference but rather a Genealogical Fair with talks; big difference.
    Second it was vastly overpriced for both stallholders and the public.
    There were many other reasons as well but perhaps the main reason was people thought it did not offer what they required.

    There is an impression that everything is available online and many do not understand that it is very doubtful that everything will never be available online.

    But to relate this to sci-fi, we doubt that even Zen & Orac the computers from Blakes 7 (1978-81 TV series) would have held all the genealogical data at present archived in "paper" form up and down the country.