Saturday, September 22, 2007

Nothing Will Save Us From Boredom

Mike Elgan—who finds genealogical research "boring"—looks forward to "The Mother of All Genealogy Databases," which he expects to appear in ten years or so.

Such a database would enable you to do absolutely amazing things. For example:
  • Enter your unique ID info (probably your Gmail username) and that of any other person, and the site would trace you both back to the most recent common shared ancestor.
  • Follow a timeline that shows the locations and migrations of ancestors all leading up to the descendant that is you.
  • Track down every living relative.
Boy, that'll be great.

Here are a few quick observations:
  • Not all ancestries are traceable.
  • DNA cannot solve every genealogical mystery.
  • Records, even if digitized, require interpretation.
  • Data submitted to websites—even Web 2.0 sites—can be incorrect, inconsistent or incomplete.
  • That computer algorithm that can reveal your genetic ancestry "in minutes" won't reveal your ancestors' names—even if you give it a couple of hours. Finding common genetic ancestry ("We're both Chinese!") is not the same as finding a common ancestor ("We're both descended from Jackie Chan!").
The gist of the article seems to be that aggregating and "mashing up" content from disparate sources will somehow fill gaps in our genealogical knowledge left by traditional ("Web 1.0") methods. This may be true to some extent, but not to the extent Elgan predicts. If "The Mother of All Genealogy Databases" exists in ten years, it will only be as accurate and useful as the data it contains. Rooting out errors and omissions would require more than an algorithm; it would require good, old-fashioned, boring genealogy.


The "track down every living relative" part scares me :D


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