Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture

Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture
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By Erez Aiden, Jean-Baptiste Michel

“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. (That’s 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 TimesThe 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 Michel—and millions of users worldwide—are 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 known—Bill 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 0s—threats to privacy and the specter of ubiquitous government surveillance. Aiden and Michel take readers on a voyage through these uncharted waters.

A biologist, an engineer, a designer and a musical robot builder walk into a room. Not a joke; it’s their office

Listen to too much talk about innovation, and before long you’re bound to hear someone utter the “cross” word. It might be followed by “fertilization,” maybe “pollination,” perhaps even “disciplinary,” but the sharing of ideas with unlike-minded people is an unavoidable hot topic that’s the holy grail of all wannabe world-changers.

After all, the thinking goes, working with or alongside those who have different skills and expertise can lead to unconventional insights and ideas. And those are the ones that will likely result in creations that actually have a shot at reinventing the status quo. And what self-respecting innovator isn’t interested in doing that? ...

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Among the serendipitous synergies that have sprouted at 33 Flatbush Avenue is an ongoing collaboration between the design and research firm Decker Yeadon and Dr. Oliver Medvedik of Genspace, a new community biotech lab. Their work focuses on water quality, an issue that is a central concern to millions of people in the Global South...

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Collaborations Welcome

In 2006, the three architects who founded Interboro Partners were walking around downtown Brooklyn in search of a new office when they happened upon the run-down, beige facade of 33 Flatbush Avenue. “There was a fantastic portrait of Elvis in the window, with a sign that said ‘Available,’ ” says Georgeen Theodore, one of the partners. “We knew we wanted to work there.” At the time, Interboro had been developing a new strategy for adaptive reuse—pushing the idea of making incremental changes to languishing buildings, using available materials. When they met Al Attara, the owner of 33 Flatbush Avenue, it turned out to be a meeting of minds: Attara had a building full of junk and the dream of starting a creative collective; Interboro became his first tenant.
 

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