With another Black Friday and Cyber Monday behind us, it’s increasingly clear that retail is undergoing a digital transformation.
Online spending hit a record-breaking $6.22 billion for Black Friday, according to data from Adobe Analytics. Consumers are buying more online for delivery or in-store pickup, and using increasingly numerous digital tools to meet their shopping needs.
The revolution has many forms and influences, from IoT to voice search and voice-assisted shopping, from AR to AI to the GDPR. And of course, there’s the blockchain, which despite its headline-grabbing developments, still has yet to take on a mainstream, user-friendly implementation. The retail world is evolving. But it’s not alone.
One little-examined market poised for a similar leap forward is the family history industry. What began as an innovative niche with websites like Ancestry.com, lead to the emergence of boutique DNA testing services over the past few years, prompting Time Magazine to declare genealogy “almost as popular as porn.”
The political climate continues to stoke public interest in tracing family history. Elizabeth Warren’s feigned connection to the Cherokee Nation has given Indigenous scholars like Kim TallBear an opportunity to educate the public on legitimate Native identity. The presidential administration’s attacks on immigrants are spurring American families to re-examine their own personal histories as immigrants and “anchor babies.”
Family history has become a major talking point. And the technology behind it is catching up.
Preserving Living History, in Real Time
Family history isn’t static. It’s a living thing, just as you are living out your part of it. Part of the family history industry is about documenting and digitizing the present. Haven’t you ever wished you were old enough to ask your great-grandmother why she left the homelands, or how many languages she spoke before she passed on? Preserving those stories for posterity is easier in the digital age than ever before.
A simple smartphone and some video editing software is all it takes to do some rudimentary family history preservation. It may seem like a humble start, but these now-common technologies allow us to maintain an oral tradition like no previous generation could.
There are also emerging apps like Capsure, which gives families the tools to collaborate on family history boards by digitizing old albums, and to document present moments to share privately with your inner circle. In this case, unlike with commercial DNA testing, there’s a merciful absence of algorithms, fine print, or sketchy selling of consumer data.
These tools aren’t going to tell you about your origins, but they will tell your descendants about theirs.
The Dubious World of DNA Testing
In 2017, more people took consumer DNA tests than in all previous years combined. Millions of Americans are overlooking the fine print to sell their biomatter for a chance to scratch the identity itch.
The tests are increasingly popular, but are they worth it? Results from different companies “vary widely,” according to ScienceNews.org. That’s because they’re estimates, based on proxy data that includes established family trees. If part of your DNA looks similar to the DNA of somebody with a paper trail to an old Balkan family, then you’re, well, probably part Balkan.
The New York Times reports that a black woman named Sigrid Johnson got back results showing no African heritage. Then she took a different test, this time with AncestryDNA, and it showed 27 percent African. Only next, AncestryDNA updated their algorithm, and “overnight” Johnson’s African heritage jumped to 45 percent. Results from a 23andMe test turned up still different numbers.
“There is no ground truth here,” says Catherine Ball, Chief Scientific Officer at AncestryDNA, “no ‘I guarantee that you are 22.674 percent Italian!’ These are all just statistical estimates. Every statistic has a lot of science and math behind it, and a lot of imperfection and room for improvement too.”
This not to mention the fact that because commercial DNA tests are marketed primarily to white people, continents like Africa, Asia, and the pre-colonial Americas and Oceania are underrepresented in company data sets. That’s a lot of the world. A mixed Asian friend of mine reported that his DNA test came back saying “Asian,” without even differentiating between East, Central, South, or Southeast Asia.
It’s not hard science. But it’s marketable, and the technology is developing.
Recovering Lost Legacies
African Ancestry is a Black-owned-and-operated swab service that claims to have a more detailed database of African lineages, and more country-specific results than their competitors. Plus they say they won’t research or sell your DNA. But one of the most reliable ways to trace your ancestry is still the time-honored one: do your research and gather documents.
The nonprofit foundation Our Black Ancestry offers help with genealogical research for African Americans who have been disconnected from their heritage by slavery. They have searchable databases of slaveholder surnames, connections to potential relatives, and many of their resources are free.
Social media too has taken a role in reconnecting people with their lost heritage. Even as Facebook falls further out of fashion, disconnected descendants of Native American tribes and enrolled members alike are using it as a way to reconnect and share knowledge about their cultures. And there’s a full-on uprising happening on #NativeTwitter.
Old fashioned ancestry research and social media reconnection are poised for disruption, just waiting for the right enterpriser to develop a more tech-forward solution for those looking to reconnect. This could give the family history industry new dimensions of cultural importance and utility.
The Future of Family History
As politics stoke the public conversation and marketing whets the public interest around ancestral identity, technology continues to offer us new ways to understand who we are and where we come from. But there’s still a lot of potential in this ripe niche.
What started as a boutique industry catering to European American curiosity is quickly becoming a mainstream market with the power to address real-world issues. As long as we’re not too easily duped by ads for DNA testing, it could take us to some very interesting parts of the past. And into the future.