Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Crunching the words of Victorian literature

December 4, 2010Hop Skip Go

The Numerati continue their march, now into literature. The NY Times has a story today on literature researchers carrying out statistical analysis of the language used in Victorian fiction and poetry.

a scene from Great Expectations, 1946

The research funds, naturally enough, come from Google. Researchers can use Google's scans of 19th century literature and the company's vast computing resources to parse the patterns of language, including word choice. As more of our history gets scanned, from letters to newspapers, linguists, psychologists, anthropologists, art historians, and more will be able to research the words people used as they hunt for the cultural effects of technological change, the incidence of personal depression, anger, sexual repression... in short, much of what they study now, but in history.

Naturally, there will be debate about whether the scanned words represent true samples of society at that time, and whether the their interpretations are tinged with modern prejudices of one kind or another. But that's the nature of research. The point is that vast new possibilities are opening up. They exist as digital data. And the research suger-daddies, even in the humanities, are going to be companies like Google. This is one more example of what I wrote about in the book: The engineers and mathematicians are plowing into the domain of the word.


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