If you were able to read every book published over the last 200 years you’d probably have a pretty good idea of the political, social, scientific, religious, cultural and ethnic trends in society—an individual book tells one story, but put together millions of books can tell the story of the human race. Technology is making it possible to capture and analyze the billions of words used to write the millions of books published in recent history, which is showing us how we’ve grown and changed as a society. Researchers at Google and Harvard’s engineering school are hard at work scanning as many books as possible into a 500-billion-word database that grows by the day. In a paper published in the journal Science they tracked the frequency with which words were used (references to God have been dropping off since 1830), how generations have looked at the history of their predecessors (references to past years have been dropping off more quickly as cultures shift their focus to the present) and how we’ve historically viewed celebrities (modern fame both accrues and fades faster now than a century ago). Patt takes you into the fascinating, and growing, world of cultural anthropology.
Jon Orwant, engineering manager at Google Books