Friday, July 8, 2016

The Economy of Free

I ran across a thought-provoking article the other day—an old one, admittedly, and not one specifically related to genealogy, but my mind has ways to overcome disconnects and instead build rabbit trails. Just call it my specialty: linking mechanisms.

The article was one of those futuristic what-if pieces: if the goal of technology—at least the computer-driven AI variety—is to keep developing the science until all the tasks previously done by humankind can be relegated to the level of automation, then what becomes of the world of work as we know it?

That's an interesting question. After all, if all of us eighteenth-century farmers had mechanized means to do our planting and harvesting, then—wait, we already have that now. We can squeeze more productivity out per acre than we've ever been able to do since the dawn of civilization. And we can spin more yarn, weave more blankets, make more suits and mass produce more stuff than a great deal of the First World nations can manage to use in any given year. That's an example of mechanized industry.

That speed-production has its by-products. One of them is more time for things other than subsistence. We no longer need to spend eighteen hours out of every twenty four, working just to produce enough food for tomorrow's meal. We can spend at least two of those hours sitting at a dead standstill in rush hour traffic.

We have choices and options. While it is true that we exchange one set of worries—about subsistence survival—for another, we also have many items in excess. And money—our means of exchange—in excess equals the opportunity to buy ourselves more free time. Maybe not in the same work week, but at some point in our lives.

That's where we sometimes shift from an economy driven by money to an economy in which money is no longer the object. Money shifts from being a potential reward to a stored commodity. It becomes a way to pay our life's ransom.

Not only that, but money becomes a means of exchange for experiences—instead of experience earning money, it is money earning us experiences. Whether we take a leave of absence from our job to stay home and raise a family, take a sabbatical to travel, or retire early to pursue a lifelong passion, the experience is filled with intrinsic factors other than those driven by money. While it may have taken money to launch us into those experiences, once we have bridged that gap, we enter a different world of exchange: one in which we are free to do and be, without a demand for payment.

If you haven't recognized yourself in this equation by now, it also includes those times—at least in the traditional world of genealogy—when we found ourselves "paying it forward" because someone else, at some point, helped us out. For free. Our voluntary services themselves became the medium of exchange. You helped me, so I'll go and help someone else.

Historically, genealogy—at least in the twentieth century—was full of such instances. We've been happy when someone else more knowledgeable than usor in the right county, or interested in the same surname—chose to help us out, with no strings attached. And in this genealogical subculture, we've been inculcated with that sense of duty to go and do likewise.

If you've ever been a recipient of help from someone you've met via an online genealogical forum, you know what I mean. It seemed there was a time when people in genealogy were happy to help each other out—no payment expected. The information we were seeking could often be accessed for freethough admittedly local—but we just had to know where to look, or how to go about seeking it.

Then came those monolithic entitiesso big, they had, in one place, everything we were looking forand they became the game-changers who taught us, once again, to expect to pay for what we were receiving. Yes, they were the smart ones who knew how to aggregate all the material we were seeking, supercharging our research progress with one-stop shopping.

But there was the rub: shopping means reverting from that free economy we'd been privileged to enjoy, back to a means of exchange that demanded the use of money.

Whether you are a strong advocate for one model or the othersay, rather than FamilySearch.orgyou and I and everyone else are left facing a two-sided world. One in which pay-per-view (or per subscription period) co-exists with free-for-all.

In such emergent contingencies, the free economy of I-help-you-who-help-others becomes an antiquated model. We see the rise of the professionalthe specialist who sees fit to charge for services rendered, just like the specialists known as bakers or tailors or architects. We pay them; why not pay for our genealogy?

Because we still have one foot in each of two worldsa free economy and a paying economy—we struggle with this question. That's the bipolar plain upon which we stand when we agonize over how we should proceed with our genealogical culture. That's what fuels such discussions as the one I referred to last month, reflecting on an article posted by another genealogy blogger. We truly are trying to live, simultaneously, in two entirely different worlds. And yet, all pursuing the same passion.

Ironically, the article that starting my musings today asked the question, "Would a Work-Free World Be So Bad?" That question is not a one-off inquiry. One of the experts referred to in this article posed such a question in his own research. In discussing "technological unemployment" he posed this one: "Will life be worth living in a world without work?"

The short of it seems to come down to how to retain a sense of purpose. If your purpose is no longer to get up at oh-dark-thirty to drag yourself through another grueling day at the office, what then becomes your life goal?

Admittedly, this begins to sound much like a world familiar to some long-term genealogy enthusiasts: the world of retirement. Those of us now free to research those micro-history questions burning a hole in our minds know how the passion can propel us through the very hours that others fear would hang heavy on their idle hands.

Perhaps those of us free to pursue genealogy as an avocation are more familiar with the predicaments pondered by such philosophers as the authors of the articles I mentioned above. And more familiar with how to overcome such "problems."

And if we do, as some have predicted will happen at some point in the near future, find ourselves in a culture in which work becomes nearly superfluous as a means for personal support, we genealogists will be handily positioned to provide advice on how to find meaning in lifesans the time-clock that has become the bane of the work world's existence.



  1. Actually, I've been concerned about a similar big picture issue for sometime. The American Economy is in trouble in part die to massive automation. Where in the past, 100's of people would use shovels, now we have 6 people running a power bulldozer and front end loader (3 people to put out orange cones and then watch). So obviously 97 people are no longer "needed" but the population has doubled in the mean time... so its more like 185 people with nothing to do...

    I think intelligent people need something "rewarding" to do with their time - work or hobby - and eventually die young without it.

    1. That last sobering thought--"and eventually die young without it"--has been a point of study for me, ever since my first, post-college endeavor in gerontology. It seems the human condition includes a psychological need to work. That risk of dying, without a rewarding "task" to propel us onward, is indeed a real threat.

      And you are right, Iggy, about the threat to the economy--not just here, but in many countries. We may well be on the cusp of some major re-definitions of what it means to "earn a living."

      In the meantime, I find it fascinating that some of the long-standing customs of the traditional genealogical-research community may well become a useful lab for observation on how our culture may, in the future, address the psychological downside of these pressures. Of course, it does nothing toward answering such questions as, "how, then, do we provide for our own needs?" But at least it gives a paradigm for how to conduct ourselves in this shift from work-as-survival-mechanism to work-as-personal-interest.

  2. The Library in town has ancestry free on their computers. I have never tried it. There is always a line. I like Family Search for now it gives me what I want.
    Busy week, hardly anything I wanted to accomplish was accomplished...I need to go on vacation at home:)

    1. Our local library does the same, Far Side: offer the "Library Edition" of You might ask your librarians if you can tap into the free edition if you bring your laptop in to the library. I know it works that way in our library. That way, you wouldn't have to wait until a computer is freed up to use it...just log into their wifi and access it on your own computer.

      On the other hand, has a lot of offerings, as well. Can't beat free and at home!


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