Uncharted: Big Data As A Lens On Human Culture

Uncharted: Big Data As A Lens On Human Culture

  • Publish Date: 2014-12-02
  • Binding: Paperback
  • Author: Erez Aiden Jean-Baptiste Michel
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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. (Thats 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 Micheland millions of users worldwideare 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 knownBill 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 0sthreats to privacy and the specter of ubiquitous government surveillance. Aiden and Michel take readers on a voyage through these uncharted waters. 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

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