Monday, February 04, 2013

Genealogies were once the province of nobility. A clear record of who married whom and who fathered/birthed whom was necessary to maintain a lineage, with all the economic, political, and social things entailed therein. Among the upper echelon of nobility, the royalty, genealogical research was all the more important to preserve the stability of kingdoms. Where the heir was clear, subjects had reason for cheer.

Today, however, just about anybody can research their family history. A sure sign of the steady democratization of knowledge, the old concerns of inheritance and precedence are largely absent as motivating factors. Sheer curiosity prompts many of us to inquire. Likewise, a sure sign of the capitalization of knowledge, publicly-traded, for-profit companies like (or in the United States: sell access to large government and other public databases, and provide an attractive online platform with which to organize the information.

Not all is as straight-forward as it seems. On the website's main page, visitors are greeted by a hallmark of advertising campaigns: a hyper-inflation of consumer expectations. The visitor is told: 'Your Family History FREE FOR 14 DAYS: Sign up now'. The link confronts visitors with a repetition of the inflated promise: 'Discover your story...' What the website actually proposes to for paying members is written in a much smaller font size. 'Original images of immigration records, military files, historical newspapers, census records and more are waiting to be explored.'

Does any of this actually count as your history? It's an interesting question on which to reflect. The historian E.P. Thompson* remarked that every historian needs to be aware of the deep divide between personal memory and the information learned from books and the contents of archives, which trails behind humanity at a distance of about a century  If you don't pay close attention to the difference between those things learned by word of mouth from family members and friends and those things learned from an archival resource, the tendency will be to allow the former simply to bleed over into the latter. Personal prejudices are likely to become writ large on a world stage.

At the same time, it's that prejudiced personal aspect that makes the history your history, and not merely your study of the history of other people. Ancestry may be able to show a baptism or immigration record of a grandparent; but that doesn't mean these are yet your history. These records only become so when you add memories shared with living family members into the mix. Why did the grandparent emigrate in the first place? What did they encounter when they arrived? When did you become a remote twinkle in someone's eye? Ancestry runs a commercial on the CBC News Now network that cleverly propels viewers past the all-important difference in the name of technological progress. The scene presented is of a elderly father and a middle-aged son, who wants to take up the father's mantle as family historian. But he wants to do it his way, by which is implied, he wants to take advantage of new technologies. And, not surprisingly, Ancestry is there to sell him their product.

I won't claim that Ancestry might not offer something valuable to some of its customers. On the other hand, I do think it misrepresents itself by claiming to offer more than it can--at this point, at least. It would be interesting to find, as users build Ancestry's database, whether actual human stories, and not merely sets records, begin to fill in the gaps, says, between the record of a person's birth, military service, marriage, and death in ways that significantly aid non-relatives.

Questions should also be raised, as they are for many other social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on, about who knows the information stored on Ancestry. It would be rather troubling to see the bits and pieces of personal history users are able to assemble held hostage by for-profit commercial interests.

*Correction: Eric Hobsbawm

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