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

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Adam Smith and Modern Genealogy

Adam Smith. Etching created by Cadell and Davies (1811), John Horsburgh (1828) or R.C. Bell (1872). -, Public Domain,
Adam Smith in his seminal work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) observed that a division of labor represents a substantial increase in productivity. He was one of the early proponents of what may seem obvious today; that complex tasks can best be done by breaking them down into small, incremental components. In addition, he realized that these tasks could be done by many individuals working in combination to achieve a common goal. His observations were based on the manufacture of pins. These concepts are generally recognized as a basis for modern industrialization.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of industrialization has always been the disorientation and dislocation of the labor force. The industrialization faced by the world back in the 18th and 19th centuries is minor compared to the effects of the second (or third or whatever) industrial revolution going on today, usually referred to as the Information Revolution. Reaction to the historical industrial changes was sometimes violent. From 1811 to about 1816, bands of English workers destroyed machinery in the cotton and woolen mills that they thought was threatening their jobs. These opponents to industrialization have been called "Luddites" named after Ned Ludd, an apprentice who smashed two stocking frames in 1779 and became identified with the movement.

As a result of the disorientation and dislocation caused by the rapid advances in technology today and its impact on the practice of genealogy, we are today faced with our own genealogical Luddites.

As I have written several times in the past, genealogy has traditionally been a solitary and labor-intensive pursuit. The reaction of many has been to withdraw into their traditional methodology and decry and even oppose the transformation of genealogy from a solitary pursuit into its complex reality of a systematic division of labor. The mechanism for this change is not any one machine or process but an accumulation of processes focusing on online family trees.

Just as Adam Smith foresaw changes in the way physical items are made, we are now facing a change in the way historical research proceeds. The most obvious examples of this change are the beginning of universal family tree programs and the implementation of automatic searching illustrated by record hints. Combined, they are transforming the way genealogy is done far more completely than the mechanization of cotton or woolen mills.

The resistance to these changes is just a radical as that done by Luddites in the 19th Century. The threats to these advances come from concerns about privacy, maintaining individual autonomy, and isolationism.  The extreme manifestation of this opposition to technology is the refusal of some genealogical researchers to share "their" research despite a common ancestry with thousands of people. But the most insidious attacks come from those who cannot understand the need for collaboration and cooperation. Common examples of this attitude are referring to an online family tree as "my tree" and the information as  "my research."

Presently, the most prominent example of the changes is the Family Tree. This universal, automatic record hint driven family tree is the object of intense criticism merely because it implements the best of the effects of the division of labor espoused by Adam Smith. Almost uniformly, the criticism of the Family Tree arises from the actions taken by "other people." There are few admissions that the problems associated with the division of labor arise from the individual not doing his or her own part of the process. The results closely resemble a playground fight between rivals.

How do we manage to navigate these huge informational changes? I believe the first step is that the level of sophistication and knowledge of genealogists needs to increase. We also need to recognize that genealogy is inherently a cooperative and collaborative effort, not just an individual hobby. As we collectively begin to understand that when we begin working on a family tree we are likely duplicating the work of hundreds or even thousands of others who are related to the same ancestors, we will begin to see the importance of finding our place in the human family.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm! Imagine if medicine, or law, also practiced "division of labor", James. OK, the repercussions would be much more severe, but repercussions there would be, just the same same.