First showing up in Central Standard Time, this was published in January of 2020. That was almost exactly one year before the insurrection in Washington, DC and the unsubstantiated claims that the presidential election had been stolen through (among other tactics) manipulation of electronic voting machines. Little did I know what was to come when I wrote, “In some cases (such as electronic voting machines that have no physical audit trail that can be consulted to verify accuracy) the potential consequences are dire.”
The year 2020 has just begun. Over the recent past there’s been quite a bit of reviewing. There were reviews of 2019. There were reviews of the 2010s. What were the best and the worst of the period? What were the highs and the lows? How accurate were the predictions that had been made at the beginning of the period? (The answer? Not at all surprisingly, abysmal.) These reviews, in many instances, relied on digital artifacts to make their cases. Among those were digital videos, digital photographs, digital audio recordings, tweets, screen shots, the content of blogs and any number of other things that exist only as bits in a data store. At about the same time as these reviews started appearing, I became interested in studying some things from the deeper past that are of interest to a much smaller group of people. That same study highlights some significant differences between the past and now that may have implications for future researchers.
Several years ago, my wife became interested in tracing her family tree. Doing such a thing for my own family had never been a priority for me. Once I saw what she’d dug up, though, my interest increased. This was amplified by the fact that at this point nearly all of the people who had first-hand or even second-hand memories are gone. My grandmothers died before I was born. My grandfathers died in the 1960s. My father died in the 1970s. My mother, the longest lived of the children in her family, died nearly 5 years ago. My aunts and uncles on both sides of the family are all dead. What I knew was limited to what I remembered hearing from my parents when I was a kid. Memory, though, is notoriously fragile and unreliable as has been demonstrated by a variety of scientific studies. Into the picture came a well-known, for-profit genealogical research site.
My family is fairly new to this country. Three of my 4 grandparents were immigrants. The fourth was the daughter of immigrants. When, exactly, did these people arrive here? That’s a good question. It’s a question that can make the search a challenge. Another challenge is that much of the history – birth certificates, baptismal records, ship manifests, naturalization records – hasn’t been digitized and may never be. Even the artifacts that have been converted to digital form reflect the differences of the past.
Throughout my life I’ve known my maternal grandfather’s first name. At least I thought that I did. That name has been given as a first or middle name to a number of members of my generation. What I was surprised to learn is that it may not have actually been his given name when he was born.
According to the digital images of a number of official physical artifacts that still exist, my grandfather’s first name was a bit fluid over time. On his marriage documents was a rather unique name that I’d never seen. On the birth certificate of his firstborn child, his first name was completely different from the name that I know. His draft card from that same year, though, had the name by which I had known him. When his youngest offspring was born 23 years later the birth certificate once again carried the name from his marriage records. The name on his tombstone is the one by which I always knew him. Curiouser and curiouser.
What all of the documents whose images I’ve viewed have in common is that they were filled in by someone other than the person or people to whom they relate. Some have the data printed, some have it written in cursive (often pretty sloppily) and still others have it typewritten. No two of them appear to have been written by the same person or with the same typewriter. Maybe that explains some of the discrepancies.
In days gone by one would provide data to a person who was acting in an official capacity. That person would then write or type it on the appropriate form. That created a lot of opportunities for error. Misspellings are clearly evident or maybe they were mis-hearings. If the person providing the data was using their original language, then letters may have had different pronunciations. For example, the Polish “w” is pronounced as the English “v”, there’s an “l” with an oblique (ł) that’s pronounced as the English “w” and “ę” in the middle of a word sounds like “in”. If you didn’t know these and someone said that his name was “Wałęsa” you could easily spell it “Vawinsa”. That’s exactly what seems to have happened on some of these documents. As for the changing first name over time, that could have been an attempt to assimilate.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it wasn’t at all uncommon for immigrants to change their first names or surnames. They did it for a variety of reasons, but nearly all come down to fitting in better in the US. During that period people also didn’t necessarily go through a formal name-change process. They simply started using a new name. Heck, even my mother-in-law was given a different name at birth than the name by which I knew her. Use the new name in the right place (like on the US census or an application for a child’s birth certificate) and suddenly that was your name.
What’s all of this got to do with differences between the past and now, and possible implications for future researchers?
The images that I’ve been reviewing may be digital, but those images are of actual, physical objects. Under the proper circumstances I could inspect the underlying objects. The same is true of important historical documents such as the Magna Carta (which I have seen) or the US Constitution, the work of authors and composers like Jane Austen and Beethoven, and the correspondence of important historical figures such as Einstein. When considering literary or musical works it also becomes possible to see aspects of the creative process. What was added? What was removed? How similar is the final work to the initial idea? In the digital age things are rather different.
How many times does a person complete a form on a screen? Where does that data go other than into a digital data store somewhere? How many electronic records are derived from others in some “system of record”? There are scenarios (e.g., cyberattacks and large-scale electromagnetic pulses) where the data could be destroyed and there’d be no underlying artifacts on which to fall back. Even without such catastrophic situations there are issues.
In the just the past 40 years there have been a variety of digital storage media. As time passes it turns out that the devices necessary to retrieve the data from those media are becoming rarer. Among the media of the past are: 7 track, mainframe EBCDIC (not ASCII) tapes; removable disk packs (some for systems that are long gone); Norelco cassettes (popular among PC users); floppies of different sizes and capacities; Zip drives; and pre-CD, removable, rewritable optical drives. Then there are disappearing servers, social media posts than can be edited and deleted and self-deleting social media posts. How do we deal with data that can’t be reliably retrieved?
When an author writes today, how often do they create using software rather than pen, pencil, typewriter and paper? The same may be asked of composers and other creatives. While some capture the evolution of their work by saving different files over time, even that is incomplete. At present I have 6 different files that capture this article in different states. There have, however, been a multitude of small changes that haven’t been captured anywhere except in the software’s active memory. When I close the document, quit the program and shut down the computer those changes will all be gone. (Note: I accidentally lost a large number of changes to a version of this article because of a user error before performing a save.) Even the software itself can get in the way.
I’ve been using Microsoft Word as my primary word processor since 1986. I also used a product called WordPerfect that’s not nearly as popular as it once was. Sadly, contemporary versions of Word are unable to successfully open my old Word documents. Yes, it attempts to recover the text and the formatting, but it rarely succeeds. As for the WordPerfect documents, I fall back to low level system utilities in an attempt to recover the essential text. Formatting is beyond hope.
So, what of all this? Am I suggesting that we somehow turn back the clock and return to physical artifacts? No. That’s not possible. That ship has sailed. Even if it was possible, I don’t know whether it would be a good thing. What then? I haven’t a clue.
I suggest that where we are today is an effect of the Law of Unintended Consequences. That law suggests that the actions of people always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. It seems applicable here. Did we know or understand the implications of storing data in a way that was essentially ephemeral and subject to manipulation without residual evidence? I’m guessing that we didn’t. We got swept up in the promises of progress. In some cases (such as electronic voting machines that have no physical audit trail that can be consulted to verify accuracy) the potential consequences are dire.
I’ve often heard that one shouldn’t call out a problem without also providing a proposed solution. I call BS on that. It’s possible to see the flaws in a system without having either the knowledge or experience to propose a plausible or viable solution. That doesn’t mean that the problem should be ignored. Maybe there’s someone who didn’t see the problem who can define a solution.
We are where we are. Digitization of physical artifacts to support research is a good thing in my book. Exclusively digital artifacts are another matter. The legacy that’s left for the future depends on how we proceed in light of the current situation. Where do we go from here?
This article © 2020 by John Zielinski
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