Books written by Ray Sullivan

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Geneology - 21st Century Style

Up until the Cambrian period the fossil record is quite scant, but then suddenly life took hold and there was a huge expansion in the numbers and diversity of species of flora and fauna across the planet. Scientists studying the period had to create a richly described taxonomy to help them compile what could be described as the family tree of all life.

Creating the family tree isn't something that I've ever aspired to, not for flora and fauna or for, well, family.  One of my sisters has and I guess if I want to know something about my forebears then I've saved myself a whole load of research.  Or she has, bless her. While searching about who married who hasn't struck me as being something I'd like to spend my time on, clearly this family tree thing is a popular pastime.

It's also a big business, and not just for working out where the lump on your nose came from (mine incidentally came from cycling while drunk in Cyprus in 1980 - tarmac does that to a face).  Historians as well as amateur family tree sleuths spend a lot of money as well as time researching timelines.  The internet has made the process both easier and harder - you have less travelling to find stuff out but my word, there does seem to be a lot of it, and not all accurate I'll bet.  Actually, quite a lot is inaccurate, I'd guess.

Whether you are building a family tree or not, one thing that may not have occurred to you is that you will probably feature in someone else's tree in a couple of hundred years time.  Will they have it easier or will the process be more difficult? Well there will certainly be more data about you than there is about your forebears, so that should be helpful. Right now we can say that Fred Married Flossie in 1905, Fred was a labourer, accountant or policeman and Flossie, well Flossie was a mother, probably. Emancipation was still a way off back then. Also we can find out, thanks to the census, where they were living at ten year intervals. Anything more is down to any recollections of aging relatives and scant documentation.

Our history is more complete.  We have databases brimming with information about ourselves.  So much data exists on me that I'd hesitate to contradict some of it even if I believed it was wrong.  If future genealogists are given access to our credit card statements then what we overspent, and when, will tell a fair bit about us all.  Then there's all those tedious blogs and tweets some insist on posting - they must crack a window to shed some light on what we were.  Facebook, of course, lets whole swathes of people wear their hearts and prejudices on their online sleeves.

But the real goldmine for future family tree researchers could be our Google search history.  Recent research has shown that we now ask Google the questions we previously only reserved for very close friends. The answers are irrelevant from a historical perspective, the questions are everything.  If I've asked about specific political parties that could indicate I have a tendency to the right or left, possibly both at the same time. If I search for places, tools or hobby equipment then that may reveal aspects about my interests that might otherwise be hidden from view. Of course we all search for lots of things that are unrelated to the kind of people we are - we hear a word on the TV or are asked by our partner about something when we have the tablet in our hands. But if we start to trend on certain topics, that really does suggest an interest.

Put all this data - Google search, Facebook, Twitter feeds and so on, throw in the terabytes of photos we'll end up storing in the cloud and genealogists are going to have a field day. The data will look like the Cambrian Explosion, with small discrete amounts of information on ordinary people right up until the turn of the century before ballooning out of control. We've even got the basis of a taxonomy to help us classify these various data streams - today we call it metadata, but it isn't as structured as the lineal system used in natural history. Perhaps we should push for it to be standardised and quickly, because in two hundred years some poor sod is going to have to try and make sense of it all.

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