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tavella

Apr. 3rd, 2013

tavella: (Ninth Doctor)
So someone, I think it was [livejournal.com profile] rfmcdpei, recently linked to a piece collecting laments on how technological change has slowed.  Well, my grandmother also lived from before cars to after the moon landing, but I'm not going to be lamenting about missing out on technical change, because someone isn't looking in the right places.

When I was a young child, my family took a lone trip out to Missouri to visit my mother's extended family.  My maternal grandfather came along, and on the long drive he talked some about his parents and grandparents, with my young self carrying away a vivid impression of a young woman from England, widowed not long after her arrival on these shores and left with my great-grandmother to take care of.  And I was terribly curious, but there was no way for me to find out more; whatever further details might exist were locked away in file cabinets and registrars.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when my DNA results from 23andme arrived.  To make sense of them, I started charting my pedigree.  Now, my father comes from a long line of obsessive genealogists, so that side was no trouble.  But my mother's side was more difficult; those English relatives seemed just out of reach as they did when I was a child.  How could you possibly find out much about people that all you know was that they were named Smith and came from England more than a century ago?

Well, it turns out, you can find out a whole damn lot now.  A quick google for my mother's uncles found me a bulletin board where someone mentioned having some information on the family.  A equally quick email got me connected with an extremely talented amateur genealogist who had my great-great-grandmother's death certificate, downloaded from the Missouri online archives.  And we were off, and in a week-long spree assembled a sprawling data portrait of a clan of Yorkshire coal and iron miners, back into the 18th century. 

And it's  not just the mere availability of the records online; it's the sophisticated computer analysis that does much of the work for you, so that it's not just a mass of undifferentiated data but that you can be presented with the most likely candidates.  Even with the availability of the records, the work would have taken years without those electronic assistants.  Sure, sometimes it still takes a human eye looking at an image to recognize a scratched out and written over town name... but that's the point: the repetitive work is done, and it's only the most problematic and interesting work that the human has to do.

That's technological change, and anyone who thinks that at the age of 55 that they have seen only 'trivial changes' in their life is quite oblivious.