Big Data as A Lens on Human Culture

Book - 2013
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"Breaking open Big Data, two Harvard scientists reveal a ground-breaking way of looking at history and culture"--
Publisher: New York : Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), ©2013
ISBN: 9781594487453
Branch Call Number: Technology 303.483 AID
Additional Contributors: Michel, Jean-Baptiste


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May 28, 2015

This nonfiction account of the creation of Google’s Ngram Viewer is fascinating. An Ngram is a word or phrase (N words long) and the Viewer measures how often that Ngram appears in books in recorded history up to 2008, at least in those scanned by Google. The authors devised the program’s basic features to view history and social change through a factual scientific lens, to see how our word usage changes over time and what that tells us. It begins with the example of illustrating when the United States changed from a plural to a singular noun. Popular accounts attributing that to the Civil War fully uniting the states into one entity once and for all turn out to be false. The trend toward the singular began before that and didn’t really take off until after 1880. If you don’t want to read the rather dry prose and the authors’ own speculations on social trends you can go directly to the appendix to see some of the charts that tell us how Santa compares to Satan, when data became more important (in books anyway) than God, and so on. They do touch on other forms of big data, but I wish they had spent more time and space on things other than Ngrams. What are the possible benefits and harm of all those photos being massively uploaded onto the Web? What about medical data – can it be used to identify causes or cures of diseases by examining massive trends. Google is now already quicker and better at predicting flu outbreaks than the NIH based on web searches for terms like”flu,” “influenza,” “fever,” etc.

Feb 04, 2014

Big Data is one of those phrases that gets carelessly thrown about in corporate speak. And even though we understand what it means, most of us probably tune it out as just another buzz word. Uncharted by Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel is their report on leveraging one of the unexplored areas of Big Data's potential: The historical patterns of written language. Here we get a clearer picture of how humanity developed its literacy through the ages, and there are many surprising insights from the past that were not obvious until now. Uncharted starts off strong with an excellent commentary on the rate a language evolves over time, and I was fully absorbed, but then the book grows muddled and steadily loses focus. There are interesting tidbits throughout, but by the end Uncharted lacks the fulfillment the beginning promised.


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