Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture


?One of the most exciting developments from the world of ideas in decades, presented with panache by two frighteningly brilliant, endearingly unpretentious, and endlessly creative young scientists.? ? Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature

Our society has gone from writing snippets of information by hand to generating a vast flood of 1s and 0s that record almost every aspect of our lives: who we know, what we do, where we go, what we buy, and who we love. This ...

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Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture

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“One of the most exciting developments from the world of ideas in decades, presented with panache by two frighteningly brilliant, endearingly unpretentious, and endlessly creative young scientists.” – Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature

Our society has gone from writing snippets of information by hand to generating a vast flood of 1s and 0s that record almost every aspect of our lives: who we know, what we do, where we go, what we buy, and who we love. This year, the world will generate 5 zettabytes of data. (That’s a five with twenty-one zeros after it.) Big data is revolutionizing the sciences, transforming the humanities, and renegotiating the boundary between industry and the ivory tower.
What is emerging is a new way of understanding our world, our past, and possibly, our future. In Uncharted, Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel tell the story of how they tapped into this sea of information to create a new kind of telescope: a tool that, instead of uncovering the motions of distant stars, charts trends in human history across the centuries. By teaming up with Google, they were able to analyze the text of millions of books. The result was a new field of research and a scientific tool, the Google Ngram Viewer, so groundbreaking that its public release made the front page of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe, and so addictive that Mother Jones called it “the greatest timewaster in the history of the internet.”
Using this scope, Aiden and Michel—and millions of users worldwide—are beginning to see answers to a dizzying array of once intractable questions. How quickly does technology spread? Do we talk less about God today? When did people start “having sex” instead of “making love”? At what age do the most famous people become famous? How fast does grammar change? Which writers had their works most effectively censored by the Nazis? When did the spelling “donut” start replacing the venerable “doughnut”? Can we predict the future of human history? Who is better known—Bill Clinton or the rutabaga?
All over the world, new scopes are popping up, using big data to quantify the human experience at the grandest scales possible. Yet dangers lurk in this ocean of 1s and 0s—threats to privacy and the specter of ubiquitous government surveillance. Aiden and Michel take readers on a voyage through these uncharted waters.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Aiden and Michel gained widespread media attention when they first demonstrated their innovative use of the Google Books project, which made available more than 30 million books in digitized form—about one in every four books published. This "big data" is at the core of this fascinating glimpse into the pair's decade-long work and how "n the coming decades, personal, digital, and historical records are going to totally transform the way we think about ourselves and the world around us." Using a new scientific tool specially designed to be used with Google Books, the Ngram viewer, the pair were able to count words for "track certain kinds of cultural change over time" and to make "careful measurements that probe important aspects of our history, language, and culture." The result is like using a new kind of telescope that allows one to see more closely—and accurately—the evolution of words and how this reflects cultural change. A long appendix of charts provides a range of fascinating Ngram-based insights as well—such as the fact that the word "data" over the past hundred years has become more commonly used than the word "God." (Dec.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Uncharted

“Aiden and Michel are big data pioneers, transforming how humanity thinks about itself. Uncharted is a magical, fun, fast and informative read. Every page brims with insight and humor.”
Kenneth Cukier, co-author of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think

“One of the most exciting developments from the world of ideas in decades, presented with panache by two frighteningly brilliant, endearingly unpretentious, and endlessly creative young scientists.”
Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature

“[A]musing, enlightening… Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel show that our books are crammed with revelations about history, culture, economics, and politics that would even surprise their authors…. The resulting insights may shift our thinking about matters great and small." — Boston Globe

"Entertaining… This may be potato chips for intellectuals, but it is irresistible. You cannot eat just one ngram." — New York Times

“Erez and Michel are keen, lighthearted guides through their complex world… fascinating.” — San Francisco Chronicle

“Literary lovechild of: Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society and Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—but Some Don’t…. Aiden and Michel have made fascinating discoveries about everything from the speed of fame to Soviet censorship. That they’re only just skimming the surface is hugely exciting.” — Slate

“[Aiden and Michel] offer fascinating insights… A fun, revealing exploration of a new way to view the past.”
Kirkus Reviews

“[Aiden and Michel] reveal a wealth of historical nuggets… [E]ven math-phobic readers may glean some fascinating sociological tidbits.” – Booklist


Library Journal
Harvard Society Fellow Aiden and Harvard University scientist Michel, recently named one of Forbes's "30 under 30," here address a hot topic: mining big data. Wondering what all those data on all those servers worldwide could tell us, they joined with Google to build the Ngram Viewer, a web-based tool that can chart words throughout the Google Books archive. The one million-plus queries run through the viewer since 2010 reveal startling cultural patterns on everything from how languages change over time to how art has been censored. Not just for geeks.
Kirkus Reviews
The story of a remarkable scientific tool that uses big data sets to examine cultural trends in human history. In this debut, Aiden (Genetics/Baylor Coll. of Medicine) and Michel, founder of data science company Quantified Labs, describe research with big data that led to their teaming up with Google to develop the Ngram Viewer, an online tool that searches more than 30 million digitized books to reveal how words and phrases have been used over time. Launched in 2010 as part of Google Books, the viewer's search of ngrams (letter combinations) serves the needs of lexicographers and historians while providing endless diversion for others. Calling Google's digitized data "an unprecedented précis of humanity's cultural record," the authors show how such data can be made to reveal important changes over time, from when the early expression "the United States are" gave way to "the United States is" to how censorship can cause the sudden disappearance of particular words and phrases, such as "Tiananmen Square." Having met at Harvard, the authors began seven years ago to experiment with their new scope on historical trends to learn how English grammar changes, how people get famous, and how societies learn and forget. While recounting the copyright, privacy and other issues they faced in developing their tool, they offer fascinating insights into how dictionaries work, the half-lives of irregular verbs and the most famous people of the last two centuries (Hitler heads the list). In an appendix, some two dozen charts graph the relative frequency of use of certain words, such as "London" and "New York," since 1800. (New York began its ascendancy in 1911.) The authors also consider the moral issues raised by the prospect of a future in which personal, digital and historical records reveal more and more about human experience. A fun, revealing exploration of a new way to view the past.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594632907
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/2/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 576,729
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Erez Aiden received his Ph.D. from Harvard and MIT in 2010. After several years at Harvard's Society of Fellows and at Google as visiting faculty, he became Assistant Professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University, where he directs the Center for Genome Architecture. In 2009, he was named one of MIT Technology Review’s TR35, the world's top thirty-five innovators under age thirty-five.  In 2012, he received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers - the highest honor given by the U.S. government to young scientists - for inventing, with colleagues, a technology that probes how genomes fold in 3-D. He lives in Houston with his wife and family.
Jean-Baptiste Michel is a French and Mauritian entrepreneur and scientist. He is the founder of the data science company Quantified Labs, an associate scientist at Harvard University, and former visiting faculty at Google. He is a graduate of Ecole Polytechnique, and received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 2010. In 2012, he was named a TED Fellow and one of Forbes’s “30 Under 30.” He lives in Brooklyn with his wife.
For the last decade, JB and Erez have been using big data to study human culture. Their work has appeared as cover stories of Nature, Science and the New York Times, and their talks have been viewed over a million times at TED.com.

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