- 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 (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 60 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,156,846 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture 1st Edition
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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
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
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The authors are confident in the value of historical word frequency analysis. "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." They begin searching for larger and larger collections of text to analyze. They eventually wind up in the office of Peter Norvig, Google's Director of Research. They convince him to grant them access to Google Books, a tremendous digital library containing more books than have ever before been collected online. Not only do Aiden and Michel spend several years conducting historical-linguistic research, but they also author a tool (available at books dot google dot com forward-slash ngrams) that allows everyone else to do the same kind of studies.
Their book outlines how word and phrase frequency can be used to learn about cultural and historical change. It tells the story of Google Books and how the authors began to use this collection of digitized documents in their research. And it provides examples of interesting trends they have brought to light. Examples include:
- Tracing the relative "fame" of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin following the 1969 moon landing.
- Illustrating the effect of official persecution by tracing references to banned European authors before, during, and after World War II.
- The same approach is used to illustrate the effect of Hollywood blacklisting during the McCarthy era.
- The effects of "flashbulb" events such the sinking of the Lusitania in 1925, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the 1972 Watergate scandal.
- Graphs of the relative popularity of various world population centers (cities).
- The explosive increase in use of George Carlin's "seven words you can't say on television."
The book introduces some of the techniques of text analysis and "big data" in an accessible way. However, it is lighter on methodological detail than I would have liked. Having stimulated my interest, the authors might have done more to teach me how to do their kind of trend analysis. I have to forgive them because of the extensive and readable Notes section at the end of the book. There is a lot of information here that I am still digesting. Slowly, I am learning more about their methods.
This book is worth reading, particularly if you are interested in history, culture, and language. Be sure to check out the authors' online ngram tool, too. It's worth spending some time with.