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Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture 1st Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 57 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1594487453
ISBN-10: 1594487456
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, December 2013: How big is Big Data? As it turns out, unfathomably large. According to Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, the authors of Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, "If you wrote out the information contained in one megabyte by hand, the resulting line of 1s and 0s would be more than five times as tall as Mount Everest." A megabyte, though, is about one-fifth of an mp3. Written out, one terabyte, a common size for personal external hard drives, "would extend to Saturn and back twenty-five times." Still, Aiden and Michel understand how to look at data sets from a humanist perspective. They created the Google Ngram Viewer, the revolutionary tool that allows anyone to search for the frequency of words over man's written history (at least within the 30 million books Google has digitized since 2004). In Uncharted, they explore the history and implications of Big Data--its influence on business, government, and our personal lives. But perhaps the most remarkable part of Aiden and Michel's work is how they are able to turn the abstract language of Big Data into an accessible and thoughtful book. Who knew millions of lines of data could be so much fun? --Kevin Nguyen

From Booklist

In late 2010, Google released an intriguing new tool, the Ngram Viewer, allowing users to search the site’s archive of five-million digitized books (now there are more than 30 million) for common words and phrases and graph their usage frequency along a timeline. While at first glance the application appears a tad gimmicky, its usefulness in tracking cultural trends across decades and centuries is mind-boggling. In this user-friendly demonstration of Ngram’s versatility, Rice University computer science professor Aiden and Quantified Labs founder Michel showcase the results of their explorations using the statistical search engine. With trillions of words in many languages at their disposal, the pair reveals a wealth of historical nuggets, such as noting the huge impact Nazi oppression had on blotting Jewish names from WWII–era books and the sudden, ubiquitous use of Martian when Percival Lowell saw “canals” on Mars in 1895. Although the volume is somewhat top-heavy with graphs and numbers, even math-phobic readers may glean some fascinating sociological tidbits and be seduced into trying out Ngram. --Carl Hays

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; 1st edition (December 26, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594487456
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594487453
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #761,090 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Neurasthenic VINE VOICE on November 7, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was lucky enough to read Aiden & Michel's original study, "Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books," when it appeared in Science on 14 January 2011. It was an astonishing piece of scholarship, one of the rare papers that divides an entire branch of human learning into "before" and "after." I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise as I read it. In essence, they mined through the Google Books database to answer concrete questions about linguistics, culture, politics, even topics such as the nature of fame and the pace of propagation of new technologies. It was a tour de force.

The title of this book, "Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture," suggests that it will be a general text on Big Data, but it is not. It covers only this body of work by these two researchers and their assistants.

The book repeats the contents of that 2011 article, explaining the results for the general public, adding some discussion of the origins of the work and the researchers' thoughts about the future. In the process, they expand the original piece, which was about six pages long excluding notes, to about 220 pages. Some of the new material is fun; I got a kick out the story about a romance novel that had been alphabetized and the information that could still be gleaned from it. Others seem like padding; who cares about this history of lexical concordances?

It's a shame that Aiden & Michel wrote this book themselves; the same material coming from a third party would not have seemed so self-congratualtory and, sometimes, smug.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, is a fun look at a pretty amazing research project. Starting as graduate students, authors Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel wanted to use big data to answer interesting questions. What started out as a simple research question ended up jump starting the authors' careers and an entirely new way to look at big data.

They came up with an idea to make a tool that could query Google's digitized library in order to determine word frequencies. Using the tool they invented, called the Google Ngram Viewer, they have been able to answer interesting questions that relate to word frequencies, explore how language changes over time, assess the adoption of new technology, assess fame, and conjecture as to how the answers to the questions they pose reflect on the prevailing culture.

Although the idea is simple in concept, it wasn't so simple in execution. They had to wiggle their way into the Googleverse to get permission to use the database, write a lot of code, and iron out certain legal/copyright problems. But once all this was done, the magic began.

I won't go into detail about their findings, but suffice it to say, they not only created the Ngram Viewer but used it intelligently to come to some very interesting (and often humorous) conclusions. Their analogy of Ngram Viewer as a modern equivalent of Galileo's telescope is an apt one. Without the telescope, Galileo couldn't have made some of his most important astronomic observations. Without the Ngram Viewer, it would be much impossible to look at; things like the transformation of irregular verbs over time or get a good idea when writers really started to refer to The United States in the singular (the results are surprising).
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book began as a scientific paper, and I think perhaps it should have stayed in that shorter form. The authors try to spin their ngram research to book length and it stretches somewhat thin. The beginning of the book is promising - the depiction of irregular verbs becoming regularized over time is interesting to anyone who looks forward to the word of the year, and I confess to being fascinated at what can be revealed by alphabetizing the words in a novel. Past that point, however, vignettes and anecdotes became more disjointed, and I'm not a fan of the authors' style of humor. Frankly, I enjoyed pondering the ngram graphs in the back of the book (the occurrences of "turnip" vs "tomato" over time, "slavery is" vs "slavery was", "werewolf" vs "zombie") more than the majority of the text.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Two young research scientists from Harvard University, Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel teamed up with Google in 2010 to create the Ngram Viewer. It sifts through millions of digitized books and charts the frequency with which words have been used. On the day that the Ngram Viewer debuted, more than one million queries were run through it. Some consider it to be at the center of a major revolution.

In an interview with Studio 360`s Kurt Andersen, Aiden and Michele said how pleased they are that the new technology can open up academic research to the "independently curious."

"It's good that a tool that's at the leading edge of science can generate so much enthusiasm in the general public." Michele cautions however, "it's inevitable that a tool like that will generate a large number of discussions that are actually irrelevant or that are flat-out wrong . . . it's still important that bona fide experts are the ones interpreting the research." [1]

In their new book Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, however, they are nowhere near so humble about the so-called "big data revolution," nor are they convinced about the value of "bona fide experts."

"At its core, this big data revolution is about how humans create and preserve a historical record of their activities. Its consequences will transform how we look at ourselves. It will enable the creation of new scopes that make it possible for our society to more effectively probe its own nature. Big data is going to change the humanities, transform the social sciences, and renegotiate the relationship between the world of commerce and the ivory tower.
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