December 20, 2010 | By Eric Sorensen | No Comments »
Categories: Computer science, Literature
Tags: Anthropology, Cougars, culturomics, databases, Digital Technology and Culture, Eric Sorensen, Huskies, Patty Ericcson, research, Rhetorics of Information, Science, Washington State University, WSU
The news desk of WSU Discovery has been having more than its share of intellectual fast food this holiday season with the introduction of Google’s new Ngram viewer, which shows the relative frequency of words and phrases in the massive Google Books database. Researchers at Harvard University say the tool offers great promise in a field called “culturomics,” a quantitative view of human culture and society.
That sounds like a new major to us, so we ran the notion by Patty Ericsson, associate professor of English and thinker in matters cultural and digital. Her response:
“This is an interesting machine. As you might guess from my scholarly agenda, I’m a little wary of machine-produced data that doesn’t have smart, knowledgeable human interpretation. So I think that this word-crunching machine is great as a tool to aid analysis—political, literary, sociological, and more.
“In the hands of someone who knows something about political history, an analysis comparing occurrences of the words “Hitler” and “Nazi” might be worthwhile. In fact the differences in the results in German and American English appear fascinating to me, but I can’t make any conclusions because I don’t know enough. In the hands of someone who knows little about such history but tries to make causal links, the results might be misleading.
“In the literary world, this kind of machine-based word crunching has been going on for decades. A colleague of mine at Dakota State University was doing computer-based textual analysis of Jane Austen and Dickens in the early 1980s.
“I’m also cautious about the data based used for this research. Any use of the data produced would have to carefully consider the texts included in the database.
“I wouldn’t consider a major on the topic of Culturomics specifically. It’s too narrow. But we do have a major in Digital Technology and Culture at WSU and a course in it is the “Rhetorics of Information,” which considers the widespread uses of databases and data crunching. I’d include the Culturomics machine in that course if I was teaching it.”
For further reading and a tour of popular ngrams, check out the growing list of Twitter #ngram hashtags. And let us know your favorites in the comment box below.
Meanwhile, here’s an Ericsson favorite:
“I love potatoes and hate carrots,” she says. “Obviously, the rest of the world agrees.”