Google’s Mad Crazy New Search Tool

image via Electronic Illusions

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Have you checked out the new Google labs Ngram Viewer?
It’s either the greatest research tool since the Dewey Decimal System or the internet’s most colossal, pernicious time suck.

It takes the vast, digital library of Google Books and treats the content like data. Choose up to five words or phrases and the Ngram Viewer will graph their published appearance for any period in the last 200 years. Choose well and it can reveal an awful lot about trends, interests, and inclinations.

Oh sure, you could use it to track cultural shifts like the arc of political viewpoints or religious beliefs, but you should see what it does with food trends: coffee vs. tea; sushi vs. tacos; arugula vs. iceberg lettuce. Did we stop wearing aprons when the microwave oven gained traction, or was it when Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published?

The Google folks claim to have invented a new field of study that they have dubbed “culturomics.” They refer to it as a “genome of culture,” that quantifies behavior through space, time, and cultural context. I don’t know about that, but it does imbue the esoteric with the convenience of a drive-through window.

Go to ngrams.googlelabs.com, enter your search terms, and the viewer sifts through 500 billion words from 5.2 million texts published over the past two centuries. The Ngram currently traces occurrences in just a third of Google’s data trove of 15 million texts dating back five centuries—the viewer’s modestly titled search parameter, lots of books, hints at plenty more to come.

Remember the contentiousness surrounding the digitizing of texts by Google Books?  Apparently all of those copyright violations weren’t for naught.

Did you know what an n-gram is? I know I didn’t. Let Wikipedia explain it all.
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