Or just another term for data smog.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a regional genealogical conference near me, and some national level speakers were there. I enjoyed hearing them, as they are very well informed and up to date on many trends.

Yet the last speaker left me with some questions in my mind. He was D. Joshua Taylor, for whom I have a great deal of respect for many reasons. Some things that he spoke on in this talk, the Future of Genealogy, rang true. There were some things with which I disagreed. He discussed advances in technology, potential tools for collaboration, and shifts and changes in demographics. Maybe it’s a generational thing (I am more than twice his age!), or maybe I just need to get out more.

I wrote a couple of years ago on how intelligent assistants like Siri, Cortana and more can help do research – or not! - because they do not tire out. Automated things like, for example, Google alerts, will deliver items around the clock. But they are just results, not carefully considered research.

As I remember it, Mr. Taylor mentioned that this is the most documented generation in history. There are the stores of data that are being collected and could be searched. And that’s what I see as one problem. Yes, it’s great that when one takes a gravestone picture that it is automatically geotagged and can be shared worldwide on a web site. But on the flip side, what about our phones tracing everywhere we go? I have nothing much to hide, but I still do not want to be in contact at all times.

Imagine if your problem ancestors had generated as much data as we seem to be doing. Or imagine if they had a Facebook page back in the 1700s or 1800s. We could even know what they ate if they put it on an ancient Twitter or an ancient Instagram. Yet, guess what? I don’t care. Yes, it’s nice to know, but it’s not absolutely vital. See, for example, the items that one can put into FamilySearch and it’s media galleries. I would certainly like to find a diary or news account that explained things about an ancestor’s life. But would I want to know every last detail? Or, where does one draw the line? Doing a simple 4-generation pedigree chart is hard enough to get full data for a program. Just imagine if you have hundreds or thousands of ancestors identified. When do you call a halt?

As another example take DNA research. Blaine Bettinger is an acknowledged expert in the field and I have heard him speak several times. Yet he too has dead ends. Sometimes you just are not going to find what you are looking for. I am a big fan of FAN research as promoted by Elizabeth Shown Mills. Cluster research has helped me to breakthrough a lot of walls in my own research, and for those whom I have helped at the Family History Center, for those people as well. But you have to stop somewhere.

As I see it, there is too much data and too little life. I am really serious when it come to research, but I am going to be out of this world far longer than I will be in it, and want to spend some of my life enjoying live people as well as those deceased ones for whom I am searching.

Taking yet another turn, as we all should admit, sometimes we have made decisions which at the time seemed fairly well thought out, and decades later, appear to have been a turning point where another choice would have completely changed the course of one’s life. I am thinking of where one went to school, what major one chose, which job one accepted, which boyfriend or girlfriend you stayed with or broke up with. All those could have far reaching consequences. One simply doesn’t as a rule see 40 or 50 years into the future. These private memories, as it were, can have far reaching effects.

Can we ever really know what motivated our ancestors to do what they did? It’s tough enough for each of us to figure it out for ourselves, let alone second-guess an ancestor from 200 years ago. What about one’s take of their own life – how can we presume to know others? I have come across publicly available declarations by a lady who claims that she never loved the father of her son, and that the man was merely a gene donor. How do you think that would make him, or the son feel? And I didn’t have to dig very far to find this. Would you like people to find this out about you online?

Google, for all intents and purposes, only dates from a 1995 research project by Stanford University grad students. That’s barely one generation. Are we sure that such organizations will continue far into the future? And what about the ability to find or search zettabytes of information? See High Scalability, for a detailed explanation.

In other words, there’s a lot of data to sift through, and we humans each have an individual expiration date. I love my computers and the searching ability they give me, but I am realistic. And having access to so much data all the time is in my opinion a little overwhelming.

It’s great to have a lot of computerized and digitized records available online. That’s very helpful – especially newspapers, church records, and the like. But think about what you might have seen. Did the records you seek even get kept? If they did, where are they? Are they accessible via the web? And even if they are can you read them? And what about items only in languages other than English? As people we can read items and use our life experience and common sense to make the best research decisions. Sometimes sheer dumb luck helps is find people for home we are looking. Another case to think about – people hide things that they feel are hurtful or embarrassing. See the example of the son mentioned above.

As Joshua Taylor mentioned there is a great deal of data on our phones. That is, until we lose it. Or it runs out of power and we cannot document something live. Or we forget to back things up. Phones etc. are very useful tools, but they are only one of many tools.

In closing, I leave you to ponder, just what is the future of genealogy, and what course do we want to take?

Andrejevic, Mark. 2013. Infoglut: how too much information is changing the way we think and know. New York: Routledge.
Shenk, David. 2000. Data smog. [Chicago, Ill.]: American Library Association.
And the absurdist comedy troupe, Monty Python.

Larry Naukam

About Larry Naukam

Larry Naukam holds degrees in Geography, Library Science, and Divinity. He has written for genealogical publications for 30 years. He is very interested in the intersection of computers and genealogy research

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