Charting Ideas Through Time

Google just released a new tool called Ngram that compiles keywords from their vast library of scanned books.

It charts these keywords from the 16th century to 2008. This makes Ngram a wonderful tool for seeing the rise and fall of subjects and ideas over a period of time.

For example, you can see that the Khanate of Khiva, and Central Asia in general, saw spikes in press coverage immediately before and after the Mennonite trek to Khiva during the 1880′s. This tells me that the region was on the minds of many people at the time, not just the trekkers.

You can also see how ideas and concepts rise and fall in the public consciousness. For example, the concepts of “Duty” vs. “Responsibility” have have changed over the past two centuries. Duty indicates an obligation a individual has toward God, an institution or another person. Responsibility, on the other hand, indicates an obligation that arises within individuals themselves. Duty vs. Responsibility shows an interesting arc, with Responsibility coming out ahead after their nexus about 1960. It is interesting that Duty made a comeback about five years ago:

You can also have some fun with the tool. In 1966, John Lennon caused a tizzy when he said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Among those publishing books, Jesus has had his ups and downs, but remained way ahead of the Lennon and the gang:

Its debatable how useful this book search engine will be for some subjects. Some of the problems include the Object Character Recognition (OCR) of archaic letters. For example, to 21st century eyes and Google’s OCR, the outdated long “s” looks like an “f.” In early U.S. documents like the Bill of Rights, that makes “Congress” look like “Congrefs” at first glance.

Books with novel ideas that are republished after they hit the public domain might also skew results. These and other caveats might make Ngram a jumping off point for more serious inquiry, rather than a source of completely reliable analysis – sort of like consulting Wikipedia for a general lay of the land on a given subject before consulting reliable sources.

Give it a try, and if you discover anything interesting, please post a link in the comments section.

-Walter