Politics, Sex, and God in Google Books

Earlier this week Google launched a powerful tool for visualizing cultural trends. The modestly-named Books Ngram Viewer allows you to search the frequency of any word in the 5.2-million strong Google Books database, reaching back to 1800. Earlier this week Read Write Web published a post of 10 fascinating word graphs created using the application. Here are three more:

War, Peace, Democracy

The first graph shows the frequency of the words “war,” “peace,” and “democracy” since 1800. Not surprisingly, the biggest peaks for war occur during World War I and World War II. Each Everest of writing on war is accompanied by a smaller hillock of writing on peace, slightly larger during WWI than WWII. What is interesting here is how writing about democracy tracks writing about war and peace during these great conflicts, with the greater frequency occurring during World War II. Why would this be? My guess is these books fall into the “why we fight” category, reinforcing the cultural values of the English-speaking countries in an effort to motivate the fight against fascism and communism, respectively.

Gay, Queer, Homosexual

The database also reveals cultural trends, including changes in perception of LGBT people. In the beginning of the twentieth century, queer slowly grew as a derogatory term The term gay also began to be applied to people who were not in committed heterosexual relationships, including promiscuous straight women. These terms decreased in use in the 1940’s and 50’s as the term homosexual gained prominence. This medicalization of LGBT identity was strengthened by the publication of the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1952 by the National Institute of Mental Health, in which homosexuality was included as a disorder. This trend continued into the early 1980’s, when the gay rights movements began to emerge and gained momentum at the end of that decade due in large part to the pressing health crisis of AIDS. Since then, the term gay has sky-rocketed in usage, while the usage of the term homosexual has tailed off, in relative terms. The term queer has also, to a lesser extent, been re-claimed.


The final graph I want to show is simply that of the precipitous decline of instances of the word God in English language books, which one can take as a proxy for the decline in religiosity. Far from being a recent occurrence, by this measure religion has been on the decline in the English-speaking world since the mid-nineteenth century, decreasing throughout the Industrial Revolution and reaching its current level around 1920. Even the recent periods of social conservatism in the 1950’s and social liberalism in the 1960’s are mere hiccups in the general decline of religion in this part of the world. We should be aware, at least in the US, that while religious conservatism may seem to be gaining prominence, it is a trend within a basically secular society.

LibTech: Practitioners’ Panel Strikes Back

Disclaimer: I have done my best to transcribe the comments of these speakers at the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes, and I apologize for any errors.

Here are a few of the most interesting tidbits from the third and final practitioners’ panel:

  • Bob Boorstin of Google: asks the audience “What do you want Google to do?”
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: Governments are to blame, not companies. If Google had their druthers, they’d show everything.
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: There is a questions of company power and company leverage, but that leverage is limited. Google didn’t have the ability to push back Chinese censorship policy.
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: There are things that companies can do, like making their products open and safe by providing https access and not putting servers in unfree countries.
  • Bob Boorstin of Google:Google is trying to set and example for governments and other companies with their Transparency Reports and their participation in the Global Network Initiative.
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: Working too closely with governments can also damage Google’s credibility with users.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: Her organization is the creator of the circumvention technologies Ultrasurf and Freegate.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: “There’s no freedom without freedom of information and no freedom of information without freedom of the Internet.”
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: They have about 300,000 people using their tools every day in China, and got 1 million users in Iran during the Green Revolution, which crashed their servers.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: Many of their developers were inspired by the 1989 Tienanmen massacre, which affected some directly, as well as persecution of Falun Gong.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: All of their tools are portable on a USB stick, leave not trace on the computer, and use encryption so they are indistinguishable from other https traffic. They have a very good record on user safety.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: It took 8 days to create a tool called Green Tsunami to detect, disable, and remove the Green Dam censorship technology.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: Proposes that 5% penetration of circumvention tools in a national internet creates enough breaks in a censorship system to render it significantly inoperable.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: How to bring together nonviolent civil resistance theory with new technology to create a new discipline – Otpor and Android, Gene Sharp and Steve Jobs.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: Success means training + technology + strategy. Liberation technology alone is not enough.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: They accomplished seven pro-Tibet protests leading up to and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, many using livestreaming cell phone video.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: He has created a smartphone app that pre-filters human faces from video with black boxes as the video is captured, preventing the video from then being used to identify activists.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: Kungleng App for iPhone for Voice of America Tibetan coming soon.
  • Ron Deibert of Citizen Lab: Google should provide resources for activists affected by DDoS attacks. (non-panelist commenter)
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: Would like to see money used for small grants for individual implementations and for education.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: Tools are not open source in order to protect

That’s all folks! Hope you enjoyed these posts.

6 Years vs. 8 Months: New Methodology Win

Here at the Meta-Activism Project I frequently write about the need for better methodologies for understanding digital activism. The endless stream of disconnected case studies and un-winnable debates between optimists and pessimists just aren’t cutting it anymore.

Because I now find myself to be a methodology geek, I was really happy to see this analysis of old and new research methods in this month’s Wired. The article is about how Google co-founder Sergey Brin is using the massive computational power his company made famous to crunch data on Parkinson’s disease, which he has a 50% of developing later in life. His goal is to find a cure.

At left is a rad info-graphic of how Sergey and the National Institute of Health produced one study on Parkinson’s. While Sergey used computers to parse his results and released them as soon as the analysis was done, the NIH went the traditional route of multiple studies, data-crunching by a statistician, and journal-based peer-review for publication. They reached the same result: Sergey in 8 months and the NIH in 6 years.

Self-publication on the Internet has ended the monopoly of academic journals over the publication of research findings. Though these journals certainly impart credibility, other entities, like Google, can now serve the same purpose. Also, it is sometimes in the public interest to simply get ideas out there instead of waiting months or years for a gatekeeper’s seal of approval. This was the original idea between Research@DigiActive which, during its brief lifespan, published original research on digital activism.

The field of digital activism needs better methodology, but exactly what that methodology should be is still open for debate and exploration. (There is more to life than multivariate linear regression.) I hope that the Meta-Activism Project will not only build new knowledge, but develop new methods for doing so.

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