Monday, December 20, 2010
My friend and colleague Chris Borgen flagged this fascinating little project undertaken by some sanguine Harvard data jocks to uncover the human "culturome" -- the social scientific equivalent of the human genome -- by systematically analyzing the evolution of language patterns in the roughly 5-odd million books that Google Books has scanned and drawing conclusions about the history and future of culture. I enjoyed this bit:
As the team says, the corpus “will furnish a great cache of bones from which to reconstruct the skeleton of a new science.” There are strong parallels to the completion of the human genome. Just as that provided an invaluable resource for biologists, Google’s corpus will allow social scientists and humanities scholars to study human culture in a rigorous way. There’s a good reason that the team are calling this field “culturomics”.
Some of my favorite findings: "Contrary to warnings about its imminent demise at the hands of teenagaers and Americans, English is booming. In the last 50 years, its vocabulary has expanded by over 70% and around 8500 words are being added every year." Well, that settles it!! Expansion is to linguistic health as cleanliness is to godliness.
And another: "When the team looked at the frequency of individual years, they found a consistent pattern. In their own words: “'1951' was rarely discussed until the years immediately preceding 1951. Its frequency soared in 1951, remained high for three years, and then underwent a rapid decay, dropping by half over the next fifteen years.” But the shape of these graphs is changing. The peak gets higher with every year and we are forgetting our past with greater speed. The half-life of ‘1880’ was 32 years, but that of ‘1973’ was a mere 10 years. The future, however, is becoming ever more easily ingrained."
Poor forgotten 1973 (and 1880)...but here's to 2011! And here's hoping that "culturomics" does for cultural studies all that empirical legal studies has done for law. But I digress. Didn't Giambattista Vico try to do something similar in The New Science? (Scanned here, as culturomicists will know, by Google) To be sure, his empirical instruments were slightly less refined, but perhaps "culturomics" will inspire the revival of the sort of historicist philosophy that Vico fathered and which flourished in 18th-19th century Germany. One can only dream. Thoughts, philosophers or culturomic wannabes? [p.s., -- I know most people say Vichian, but I can't bring myself to bastardize Vico's name like that...at least not until I see more usage data from the study].