Scene 21: Millie Rossini and old Jenna

In which Millie Rossini explores her family’s past.

Individuals will have a more nuanced understanding of self, as ancestors help them see where they came from.

Millie was skipping around her family-history website. The impetus came from a class assignment, but at the moment her browsing was fairly undirected. There were chock-full pages for just about every single ancestor in the past three generations. Further back than that, the personal information became progressively much thinner, containing relevant facts and a few links, but no video.  Her mother, Edith, peeked through the doorway  occasionally.

Millie Edith and Jenna

Millie studied a page for Jenna Krolokowski, who was Millie’s great-grandmother (her mother's mother's mother), which, among other things, contained a set of "milepost" videos – roughly one per decade of Jenna's life. Millie assumed the 10th-birthday one wouldn't be too interesting. The next one was at age 16 – just three years older than Millie! She clicked to play, and saw a scrawny teenage girl wearing heavy makeup in what appeared to be a brightly-lit dining room.

"Okay, today is October twenty-third, twenty seventy-five, and this is Jenna Krolokowski, and it was my sixteenth birthday yesterday. I know I'm supposed to keep this to about an hour, so I will do my best! Um, let's see, where should I start? I'm a sophomore at Union High. Here in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. And it's a really great school, I love it! And I have a lot of really great friends…"

Millie was fascinated by this, even though it immediately occurred to her that this was not relevant to her assignment. She listened for a while. Jenna talked about her family and some of her close friends, and professed to have an interest in a career as a doctor because she wanted to help people. She then went on about people that Millie had no knowledge of, and Millie's attention drifted towards physical attributes of Jenna that were somewhat similar to her own, and to idiosyncrasies in the way Jenna spoke. But her attention was presently drawn back to Jenna's monologue when Jenna briefly looked down at her notes.

"Okay, let's see. It says I should talk about my parents, or well, it's a suggestion. So I thought of a couple things. And it says I should make this Private for 10 years, I guess so that I can feel free to speak my mind now. So… hi Mom, ten years from now! And Dad! I thought of one thing I'm going to say, which I hope you don't think is mean, Mom! Because I love you! Okay, but anyway. I'll stop saying this like I'm talking to Mom.

"Okay, so, I watched my Mom's milepost video from when she was sixteen, too. And Mom said that she was mad because her mom was nicer to her brothers than to her. And it's so true, it's just the same with me, my mom, and my brother! Which makes me so mad. Or, sad, or I guess some of both. And it's made me wonder why…"

Further on, Jenna (again following unseen instructions) talked about what from her perspective constituted the biggest public news of the year. Her choice was the apparent discovery of an alien civilization on another planet, and she offered her own excitement about that development. Then (again following instructions) Jenna picked a personal story to tell: she described a dramatic fight her brother had had with a class bully a few weeks ago.

Before Millie knew it, she had finished watching the entire video.

Millie scanned the titles of Jenna's other milepost videos, and decided to look at the very last one, apparently a few months before her death. She was initially taken aback: the plump old woman was hardly recognizable as the same teenage girl that she had just been watching. Millie watched for a while, though it was not nearly as interesting. Old Jenna spoke at length about her children, and her husband and his less-than-successful career, and her own career as a graphic artist. She clearly had a lot of wisdom that she wanted to share, and spoke in sweeping generalities that Millie couldn't easily relate to. Millie told herself she'd come back and watch it another time.

Next on her agenda was a milepost video that her brother Lou had told her to watch. It was a crazy old bachelor on her father's side, named Matthew Pearson. Matt's age-62 video in 2044 was apparently quite ridiculous, and it had accumulated a wealth of attached comments from various family members over the years.

She listened and watched, and found the man quite peevish and unattractive. Millie was not very knowledgeable about political ideology, but soon gathered that Matt was against the government, and against the United Nations, against immigration, and so forth. Matt had included a lot of links—many of them now broken—including a personal blog site and links with leering labels about "what they don't tell you."

She followed one 2058 commentary link from a great-uncle, Tom Sanchez, who tried to explain where Matthew had gone wrong in his life. Tom included a link of his own to a documentary video with political analysis of that era. The video had no interactivity and not even any meta-data, so Millie felt a bit at-sea, not knowing where it came from or any other context.

She scrutinized the style of the documentary video. There was a narrator, and it had cuts to pundits saying grave things, and lots and lots of b-roll. She occasionally encountered this older style of educational video, and wondered whether this was the best they could do in those days.

I hope the value of future websites like the one depicted here is thunderously obvious. But in case not…

It's been said that the introduction of the internet has accelerated the horizontal "flattening" of society, resulting in a cacophony where everyone is constantly hearing what everyone is yelling. As family-genealogy websites like these get established and grow, the pendulum could swing back towards a more “longitudinal” orientation, with a new and intense consciousness of family histories pulling some attention away from the blogosphere.

The question of "who am I" may then become less about what party to pick or what "ism" to embrace, and more about things that matter to one's extended family. Longer, slower discussions among family members—across generations—are more naturally compelling than news chatter.

It could lengthen our perspectives. But could it also cause more provincial, "tribal" thinking, or even (with apologies) neo-mafia-ism?  I don't think so. Instead, I think it will naturally tend to increase interest in national history and to lessen overly-abstract thinking about it, and can lessen the reliance on crude stereotypes.  It could engender more sympathy for other groups trying to find their ways through life.  And psychologically, I think, it will tend (on average) to avert excessive individualism or narcissism.

Maybe it could also revive localism to some degree.  As Daniel Hopkins notes, politics in the United States has relentlessly been nationalizing.  How many of us know anything about candidates for local or state office, except for their stances towards the President?  I have to say that I am not personally optimistic that a revival can occur, as wonderful as that would be; my hopes are pinned more upon how the national dialogue can be changed.

In any event, these genealogical sites will be an important part of everyone's education. Obviously, the technical tools for creating websites like these are already here—it's just a matter of time for the practices to get established and for rich content to accumulate.


cast of characters