Sunday, July 27, 2008

Genealogy, the Idaho Russet and Innovation

In April I was elected Chairman of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, one of my favorite organizations on earth. Not only does the Society have a world class staff, but its Trustees and Councilors are a group of extraordinarily talented individuals who dedicate their time, talent and treasure to collecting, preserving and interpreting--so our mission goes--the stories of families in America.

Founded in 1845, the locus of the Society has moved rapidly in the last decade from its beautiful library on Newbury Street in Boston (still active and vibrant) to a global on-line presence.

With that in mind, these are remarks I made shortly after becoming Chairman. The subject appears to be about the Idaho Russet potato, one of which I pulled from my pocket during the speech. I suggest, for full effect, that you find one in your kitchen and place it on your monitor now.

Or, I have provided some here for ambiance.

Several Trustees/Councilors have asked that I post my remarks on-line. As I only had the speech three-quarters complete the morning it was delivered, I am taking the liberty of completing it in writing here.

And, for the record, I love McDonald’s French fries. Though, as the Roman Terence advised, moderation in all things.

Here are my remarks:
I want to take you back to, say, 1920, for a minute and posit the following: I believe that there are a number of businesses, a number of industries, where a reasonable person could have reasonably predicted how they might evolve over the next 80 years.

I'll give you an example: Automobiles.

I believe you could have looked at the automobile industry in 1920 and forecast a fairly correct future for the automobile: faster, sleeker, more powerful, safer. You wouldn't have gotten the electronics right--things like antilock brakes--but you might have assumed that the auto could fly or drive underwater; in other words, it's not clear the industry has evolved as quickly as you might have predicted in 1920.

The same is true, I believe, of aircraft: faster, sleeker, higher. Maybe we would have had them landing on the moon, or hovering like helicopters. But, I don't think we would have been too far from reality.

Now, let me give you a contrary example. Some of you will recognize this as an Idaho Russet potato. Is there anything more low-tech than a potato? But, here's the irony: Take a relatively complex technology like the automobile and predict the future--not so hard. But take a low tech commodity like a potato and, well, I don't think there is any way that you could have stood on an potato farm with (the recently departed) J. R. Simplot in 1920 and predicted what would happen to the Idaho Russet in the next eighty years.

In 1920, of course, potatoes were already a staple of the American diet, but they were harvested by hand and usually eaten in one of three ways: baked, boiled or roasted. Today, of course, we still do that, but of the 79 lbs. we each eat on average annually, 40 lbs. are baked, boiled or roasted and 39 lbs. come in the form of--you guessed it--the most widely sold food item in the United States, French fries.

Today, the lowly Idaho Russet potato is picked, sent to a processing plant that will process several million pounds of 'taters a day. Rarely touched by human hands, it'll have its jacket blown off by hot steam and then be fired at 117 feet per second through a hose into a finely sharpened grate, coming out the other side in a perfect French fry cut. Blanched. Frozen. Almost ready.

Because next we'll have to visit a fragrance and flavor company along the New Jersey Turnpike to come up with the flavoring to be added back to the fries to make them taste like French fries, since the processing tends to take much of the flavor away (and we're no longer allowed to fry them in beef tallow).

The real irony, of course, is that when you buy that bag of French fries and eat all 534 calories, 54% of those calories will come not from potatoes but from corn. (Those of you who have read Omnivore's Dilemma will know that corn has taken an even stranger journey than the potato.)

What did we miss? A potato is, after all, a potato. And, were we predicting its future in 1920, we might have anticipated better pesticides or better fertilizer and higher yields. But how could we anticipate, for example, the culture of the automobile that grew up in the 1930s and 40s in places like southern California, and that led to things like drive-in movies and restaurants. How about the proliferation of franchising in the 20th century? Or applying high speed industrial processing to food products—i.e.: treating potatoes as "production units"? Or the ability to ship cold product cross-country?

Hopefully you understand my point: a potato is still a potato, whether it's 1920 or 2008, but nothing else around it is much the same.

Now let's talk about genealogy for a moment. I believe you could have stood in this Society in 1920--or 1850 for that matter--and reasonably predicted what the genealogy world would look like in 1985. More books. Better access to archives. Better scholarship. More integration of national or global records. Maybe even, given the advent of photography, microfiche and microfilm.

But here's the irony--where the potato gets shot at 117 feet per second out of the hose, so to speak:

I do not believe you could have stood in this Society in 1980, or perhaps even 1990, and reasonably predicted what the genealogical world would have looked like today. That's less than a generation of fortune-telling, and we would have likely guessed wildly wrong.

Why? Because the art and scholarship of telling our families' stories didn't change, but everything around it did. The web, email, podcasts and blogs. Digitization of data. Social networking and online sharing. A computer for every person.

So, let me "talk genealogy" to you for a second:

+ MyGenerations Network, the parent of, boasts 2.5M active users and 8.7M unique visitors per month

+ In Dec 2007, was acquired by Scotland Online, which defines itself not as a genealogy company, but as an ISP and IT solutions provider that also owns ScotlandsPeople.

+ Familybuilder of New York, which searches for relatives via social networks, has over 2 million registered users and over 7 million profiles since launching in June 2007

I've just told you three critical things about the competitive genealogy world and I have yet to mention books, libraries or Idaho Russet potatoes.

That's not to say that books and libraries aren't still absolutely critical to great genealogy. But it does say the following, and this is the real reason I accepted the position of Chairman of the Society: What makes this place so exciting, so dynamic, and so full of opportunity is that we are a 150-year-old organization that focuses on history, embraces tradition and treasures scholarship--oh, and that just happens to be in a technology-driven, high growth, rapidly evolving industry.

That speaks to being a new kind of organization, and I believe we have been watching that transformation over the last ten years.

Having our nineteenth-century Society thrive in the twenty-first century means nurturing all of the things that have made us a one-of-a-kind institution since our inception, and at the same time, taking smart risks, accepting ambiguity, addressing complexity, connecting old dots in brand new ways, and embracing technological change. It speaks to being very well capitalized so that we can address opportunities and weather set-backs. It means partnering in ways that advance the non-profit genealogy agenda. And it means having the kind of Councilors and Trustees who love tradition and love technology, and, on any given day of the week, cannot decide which they love more.
At which point I placed the Idaho Russet potato back in my pocket and sat down.