The Effect of Technological Advancement on the Historical Record

Recently, I’ve been researching my family history, an endeavour which has so far been facilitated by the fact that my relatives appear to have been reasonably good at both record keeping, and maintaining physical artefacts of their existence.

My family has always been ‘photographic’. In a large drawer, in an antique bureau, downstairs lives a collection of family photographs which I can reliably date back to 1910, and quite probably slightly further than even that. I organised those a couple of years back, although I’ll shortly be going back through them to see if I am able to put any faces to the names on my family tree.

On top of those, I have more recently found letters and postcards from the 1950s, entries recording family members birthdates and marriages between 1860 and 1890, and various original birth, marriage and death certificates. All of this has meant that, in the space of a week, I’ve been able to reliably trace back as far as 1830, with a further generation still undergoing research.

Around the same time, a magazine I read regularly began to publish a series of articles related to genealogical research. In the first, the writer talks about an article she read about the 2013 discovery of artifacts preserved in the Antarctic for 100 years.

“When I saw these remarkable photos for the first time, I wondered what would happen if a smartphone was left in the ice for 100 years. Would someone still be able to retrieve the images? I think not”

This statement echoes something that I have been saying for a few years in response to one of the reasons I still choose to shoot film, despite the rising cost of doing so, and the time consuming process of developing the images and digitizing them for online sharing. That is, that if someone – even the least historically curious person – were to be clearing out, say, an attic, and came across a folder of old negatives, what would they do with them? I’d wager that most people would at least have a flick through, and many would keep the folder, maybe scan them to see the photographs better. A better analogy given the present time period, and the rapid advancement of technology over the past twenty years might be a box of letters and postcards. Wouldn’t you have a look through, read at least some of them, maybe show them to your parents, siblings? Now, apply that same thought to the discovery of a box of old floppy discs. Are you going to go to the effort of locating a system on which to read them? I’m sure that a handful of people would at least consider it, but I’m equally sure the vast majority would simply place them directly into the rubbish sack.

Of those family photographs I spoke about earlier, the bulk were of course taken within the last fifty or so years, and document my grandparents youth and marriage, then my mothers childhood and teenage years, followed by the birth of first myself, and then my sister, and our own lives throughout childhood, and into our teens. Somewhere around 2000, though, they drop off. In part, I expect, that’s because I turned 18, and a year later moved out to dramatically screw up my life for a few years, and so there weren’t a whole lot of occasions when taking pictures will have appealed to anyone. There’s a few family events, weddings and such, but nothing of the ‘snippets of everyday life’ which appear regularly before that.

But in part, too, 2000 was around the time when the digital camera as a potentially affordable consumer gadget began to pick up momentum, and despite the fact that the quality was terrible, this was offset by the sheer convenience. No more buying film, no more paying for it to be developed, and finding that a third of the shots contain thumbs, cut off heads, or absolutely no image at all.  Sure, the memory cards cost a lot compared to the cost of storage media in 2014, but you only needed one or two. Most point and shoot digital cameras back then barely hit 1mpx, and even on a tiny 32mb storage card, that’s around 80-90 photos. The capacity of between 2 and 3 rolls of 35mm film. If you had a few that didn’t work out, you knew right away, and could delete those to make space for more.

In the decade and a half since then, digital photography has developed to the point where we now have mobile phones capable of better image quality than those point and shoots which all but replaced our film cameras. Arguably, the rapid evolution of this technology has completely revolutionised the photographic industry – certainly within the commercial, news and editorial sectors. The quality of even an entry level DSLR produced within the last couple of years is a rival for some of the highest performing film emulsions (at least in terms of the 35mm/APS formats), in many ways (and as a fervent and unrelenting lover of film, it does slightly pain me to type that).

Process and share within minutes (even faster if you’re using a camera phone or a camera with connectivity), no extra costs after the initial purchase, high quality, prices dropping all the time, no bulky photo albums to store, no wasting reams of paper on pictures you’re not too fussed about. What’s not to like?

How about this.  In twenty or thirty years, what will you be able to show to your kids/nieces and nephews/anyone at all? In one hundred years time, what evidence besides the one day in a decade facts within the census will remain that you ever existed? I’m sure that a lot of people assume that in the future, nobody will care about Mr Smith or Mrs Jones from Wherever, who worked as a secretary/shopkeeper. But we surely gain a rounded perspective on history from ordinary people, and not just celebrities of the day, whose lives will not have been representative of the whole. If I’m sitting here in 2014, looking at the earliest discovery of my lineage, and wondering what my great grandmother’s great grandmother, Leah, was like, and what life was like for her and her family in the mid 1800s, then I am certain that in 2170 or so, there will be people wondering the same things about their own ancestors, people in my generation now. Technology, no matter how capable, will never eliminate simple human curiosity.

“If things don’t change, in a hundred years from now, the only information about our lives will be the basic facts recorded in the national census. Recent censuses have included other questions, so you’ll have snapshots of a persons life taken one day every ten years.”

But, as I have discovered early on in my research, one day every ten years just isn’t adequate. Cold hard facts are useful, of course, but only as a starting point. Had I not seen the notations made in the family bible, I would not have known that relatives of mine a few generations ago had not one, but two children. The daughter, rather sadly, lived only a month, and whilst it is recorded in the next census that they had parented two live children, and one remained, this is quite literally expressed as a small number in a column. It might even have been missed had I not been half-looking for it as partial confirmation that I was looking at the correct records. I certainly wouldn’t have known that this was a family who cared enough to record themselves in what must have been a family treasure (even given my opposition to organised religion, I treat this huge bible with reverence, not for what it represents religiously, but for it’s historical significance). There, in the mid to late 1800s, somebody carefully recorded their names, and the name of a daughter. Later on (there’s a slight change to the writing style), presumably that daughter recorded the details of her marriage, and her two children. On the deaths page is recorded the name of the original male head, and, heartbreakingly, the newest daughter just a month after the recorded date of birth. No census could give me the wealth of information that these simple few pages have. What that family must have gone through as their child was brought living into the world, only to be taken from it mere weeks later. This kind of personal record tells me that this family cared enough to record these events, and offers some kind of insight into their real, personal lives. Not only does this give me important factual  information and allow me to take my research further, connecting the dots between them, in 1889, and me now in 2014, but it also influences me on a personal level, to find out more about these people, and to tell their story.

History is undoubtedly important and intriguing, but there’s also a significant responsibility to ensure that we are not right now wiping our metaphorical tracks as we go, and leaving a historical blank for future generations.


[The full article from which I have quoted sections was published in the March 2014 issue of Writing Magazine, and written by Nicci Fletcher.]

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  1. Gede Prama

     /  April 11, 2014

    I really like what you’re doing here. there seems to be a positive vibe! what to do as you do and show others how. Good luck! 🙂


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