In genealogy, the study of family lineage and history, we form a general idea of a person who lived long ago by analyzing available data points relating to their life. Birth and death documents, marriage licences, tombstones, immigration paperwork, records of legal actions, personal/photographs, letters, baptism records, and so on. Anything that recorded someone's 1) identity and 2) some other bit of information (like location, current age, marital status, etc) is useful to piece together a picture of that ancestor's life.
From just 4 faded documents in handwritten ink from the 1800s, all publicly-available online, I was able to put together the following general overview of my great-great-great-grandmother:
- Jemima Metherall
- born 1839 in Prince Edward Island, Canada
- the Metherall family (and her husband's family, the Kinleys) came to Eastern Canada in the early 1800s from Devon and Isle of Man, England
- Jemima married Richard Kinley on 5 September 1861 in PEI at the Methodist church in Charlottetown
- my great-great-grandmother (Margaret Drucilla Kinley) was born the following summer, also in PEI
- the family moved West to Manitoba as Canada became a country and expanded in the 1860s
- at least 5 younger siblings were born over the next 15 years
- they settled in the Wapella (Qu'Appelle) area of Saskatchewan, in the middle of the harsh Canadian prairies
- the family made a living by farming until the children had left home, some moving further West to Vancouver, British Columbia
- Jemima died in Wapella, Saskatchewan, in the autumn of 1904
She didn't leave those documents there for us to discover. She wasn't trying to leave her mark on history. Fall all we know, she was doing her best to stay hidden! Regardless, as the centuries tick by, society requires more and more documentation, and we get better at preserving and analyzing those documents. Jemima's tombstone, birth certificate, marriage license, and census data were created by her family members and by the early government of Canada, whether she liked it or not.
Today, I don't know what colour Jemima's eyes were, but perhaps even that could be discovered, with enough effort and time. Search skills, logic, basic math, and puzzle-solving skills come in handy for genealogists, and it's more fun and rewarding than you'd think! (If you're interested in finding out about your own family members, try this database.)
The point is, from just a few rudimentary pieces of data, we can get a pretty good idea about people.
Now... consider that today, we're leaving FAR more than just a handful of documents behind when we die...
And every post, comment, upvote, view, refresh, scroll, and click on the blockchain is being recorded and stored forever...
And if we're on a "smart" device (which has unique identifying numbers in the phone as well as the SIM card), even more information is being generated and saved - our vital signs, direction we're facing, if we're moving and how fast, audio, photos, and video from the cameras and microphones, a list of who else is nearby, any financial transactions, any calls or messages sent/received, and so much more...
And consider all that data comes attached with our IP address, login credentials, information about our internet connection, exact time down to the nanosecord, and much more...
What kind of picture are we leaving about ourselves for our descendents to discover some day? How about the picture we're creating of ourselves, right now, for big tech, corporations, government agencies, and anyone else who might want to know?
Nowadays, some of us are generating more "documents" than others, but I believe most of us are leaving a very clear and vivid picture of not just who we are, but every single thing we do.
For better or for worse, future and current observers can discover (and already know) our every move - from waking up, to falling asleep, and from our birth until our final breath.