Cracking Our Culture’s Genome

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Is it possible to understand how an entire society thinks, to objectively examine the sum of a culture’s obsessions and anxieties, its fetishes and fascinations? And if so, could we extrapolate some deeper historical truth from the exercise, or just a mass of superficial conclusions? Cultural anthropologists write ethnographies, urban planners crunch demographic statistics, and media watchdogs sniff out trends and biases in mainstream media with the hope of gleaning some understanding the zeitgeist, be it past or present. But the various fields of study, due to their inherent specificity, can’t help missing the bigger picture. Even the shrewd, data-driven analysis of the urban planner is imperfect; it misses the nebulous, unquantifiable nuances of human experience. How do you statistically account for a heightened fear of foreigners, or infatuation with celebrities, or changes in artistic aesthetics? Assuming that we even want to know the contours of our national culture from an outside perspective, we’ll need to form an uncommon alliance: between scholars in the humanities and the arbiters-of-all-knowledge Google.

One of Google’s latest gifts to the Ivory Tower is Ngrams, an easy-to-use interface that pulls word-frequency data from the company’s massive database of books and plots them against a timeline. By agglomerating the text of as many books as possible from every conceivable field of writing, the theory behind Ngrams goes, one can begin to form a more comprehensive idea of what our culture is (and has been) all about.

This type of broad, numbers-based study of texts (called corporal studies in academia) isn’t entirely new, but computer-accelerated applications like Ngrams lend the practice an unprecedented computational power. A recent article in The Chronicle Review guardedly appraises this new scholarly field of “culturomics.” (Culturomics is meant to rhyme with genomics and carries the same assumptions: that culture can be quantified and then decoded, just like the human genome.) The article’s author, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, frets that anyone with an internet connection can become an armchair-statistician-cum-cultural-critic. “I think that [Yale comparative literature scholar Katie] Trumpener is quite right to predict that second-rate scholars will use the Google Books corpus to churn out gigabytes of uninformative graphs and insignificant conclusions,” writes Nunberg. “But it isn’t as if those scholars would be doing more valuable work if they were approaching literature from some other point of view.”

People poking around on Ngrams will ultimately be beneficial to scholarship. “Whatever misgivings scholars may have about the larger enterprise, the data will be a lot of fun to play around with,” writes Nunberg. “And for some–especially students, I imagine–it will be a kind of gateway drug that leads to more-serious involvement in quantitative research.”

So here’s a bit of armchair scholarship. I plotted the use of two phrases (above) that mean a lot to us at Utne Reader–“alternative press” and “mainstream media”–from year 1900 to 2000. Both phrases don’t come into use until about 1970. Although “alternative press” enjoys more of a presence in written discourse for the following 15 years, “mainstream media” begins to skyrocket into our consciousness in 1985. What inferences can we draw? Perhaps the accelerated use of “mainstream media” is a symptom of an expanding cable news network or growing academic interest in the subject. Might the stagnation of “alternative press” be indicative of suppression of fringe opinions? And should this inflate our underdog ego? Admittedly, it’s hard to conclude anything from these graphs. After all, I was just playing around on Google.

Source: The Chronicle Review

Image by Carlos Luna, licensed under Creative Commons.

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