Holistic History Extra: Lit History

Imagine a library. A library which contains every book written. Well, within reason. Since 1500. While you’re containing your excitement that yes, there are actually libraries like that, imagine the imaginary one has a search function. And we’re not talking searching for books.Searching for individual words. Individual words out of the trillions written across half a millennium. You could do a lot with that. You could trace trends in pop culture. You could chart the formation and destruction of ideas across time. You could search for “poop” and laugh uproariously for the next 500 years. In other words, it could be an extraordinary tool for charting history and culture connecting people across time.

Godammit, Internet, you’ve done it again.

The Google Ngram Viewer (it would be Google, they’ve done this kind of thing before) is a search tool for Google’s enormous imaginary library.  That is to say, it allows you to search through every single word of the 5,200,000 digitised books from throughout the history of Modern English, 1500 to the present. Don’t tell me you’re not at least a little bit interested. Now, as scientific methods go, it’s…about as scientific as a PhD in English Literature. Life isn’t reflected entirely by literature, after all, sometimes, literature tries to be as far from real life as possible. Plus, you kind of have to guess at cause and effect – why one word is popular at one time but dwindles at another is at its core educated guesswork. But it’s another fascinating thing nonetheless, and it’s got the makings of the objectivity and empiricism history is relying on more and more.  So here’s a few searches to get you started.

(Click on the images to enlarge)


war peaceAn easy one to start with, right? “War” starts out low and begins to spike just before 1914 – that’s predictable enough -then drops, but never as low as it had been before the First World Fuckup. Contained there are generations of war poets and, after that, the modernist writers of the Lost Generation. Then it spikes suddenly from about 1937 as Europe prepares for war again and drops more slowly from the Cold War and further into living memory. Peace follows the exact same pattern on a smaller scale. But that makes sense too. When do people think about an end to war the most?


war peaceSame shit, different language, using the Russian words for “War” and “Peace” and, for we uneducated few who can’t speak Russian, the same colours. “Peace” peaks in 1812: the same year Russia emerged victorious against Napoleon. That was a surprising result for everyone because a) Napoleon didn’t lose things and  b) The Russian Empire didn’t win things, and a source of much national pride for a country that not too long ago had been beset by plague, famine and angry Poles and was now set to conquer Europe. Another interesting jump is in the use of “War” from 1941, the year Hitler invaded the USSR. Almost until the war was declared, Stalin was intent on staying neutral, banning all mention of it in the media until it was unavoidable. Those media are responsible for the huge jump in the last part of the graph.


war peace

The changing face of places is also pretty clear to see. And not just because London’s looks eerily like the city’s own skyline. This ngram starts in 1770, and London begins as the unofficial capital of the lit world – and the capital of one of the empires running the real one (the fact that it’s mapping English texts helps, of course). New York’s rise to fame comes roughly during the “Gilded Age” of America’s history, the birth of monopolies and skyscrapers and silly moustachioed capitalists (kidding: they’ve always existed), and London’s decline comes during the decline of its empire before becoming a cultural capital during the “Swinging Sixties”. No-one really notices the large cities, the huge economic powerhouses of Tokyo and Beijing, until they have their booms – the miracle of Post-War Japan and the “Golden Sixties”, the Deng Xiaoping reforms from the 1980s in China. The graph ends before today. Beijing still rends upwards.


war peaceThis one…this one is just uncanny. “Capitalism”, “Communism”  and “Fascism”‘s use  in Literature more than slightly resembles how influential they were in real life, minus capitalism’s unusually shaky start – look how Communism starts shaky and gets stronger, almost overtakes Capitalism in the 1950s and then dwindles back to a sharp decline in the 1990s during the fall of the USSR. Fascism pops up out of the blue in the late ’20s and has its peak in 1943, then it’s unpopular until it’s revived as a left-wing insult in the 1960s. However, Capitalism peaks in the 1930s, the recovery period of the Great Depression. Maybe Capitalism is more often used as a curse than a compliment, and invoked more by critics than believers. By the 1980s, at least, it has its day. Does this sound familiar yet?

You’ve probably got some ideas of your own, if not I’ve bored you half to death with enough. It’s rare that you get a chance to measure ideas so empirically – and the Ngram’s not perfect, but it’s clearly hit the mark more than once. It doesn’t have to be about history, and some of the linguistics angles are the most interesting (see the vicious battle between “thee” and “you” in the 1600s, although you can probably guess who won) And, whatever you do, post any ideas you have and discoveries you make in the comments. The imaginary library is only going to get larger. Why not make yourself part of it?


Holistic History Extra: The Greatest Timelapse Ever Built

In my last post, I tried to argue the case that history is still in the making and the world is still changing rapidly. With that in mind, take a look at the new Google Earth Engine – something which I swear is the most amazing, beautiful and terrifying proof of that you will ever find. Because where Google Earth on its own (other Earths are available), allows you to skim through the entirety of the globe in detail…the Engine allows you to skim through history itself.

Here’s a little context: In 1972, NASA (it would be NASA, wouldn’t it?) launched the Earth Resources Technology Satellite. The beautifully named ERTS (it’s now called the Landsat) had a simple task – photograph as much of the globe as possible, in detail and in high quality.  The result – the “high quality” of the 1970s and the 2010s are not always compatible, except of course in terms of amazing hairstyles – is a collection of low-res images of everywhere you can think of from every year from 1972 to 2013. And this is where the Google Earth Engine comes in. Because the idea is simple – Google obtained the images from 1984 onwards, put them into a simple timelapse, allowed people to access it for free online – but the result is amazing. Because while the Landsat…well, sat, taking pictures idly in the upper atmosphere, it unwittingly captured 29 years of history on the earth below.

The Vlogbrothers have already covered the extraordinary environmental impact that you can observe over the time period, so I’m not going to bother telling you that. But there’s history at play here, and the most amazing part if that you can see it. Landsat captured the end of the Cold War and the subsequent urban growth – and rural decline – of the former USSR.  It captured globalisation with sprouting supermarkets, urban growth with ever-sprawling cities. It captured Haiti’s earthquake and Chernobyl’s explosion. In places, it manages to be beautiful, but in others it is absolutely terrifying – as cities expand and forests shrink, it gives off a powerful message about how much we realistically have left. I’m going to suggest you look through it yourself to get a sense of it – the little details seem to be by far the most powerful and amazing to me – but if you can’t get started let me offer you some suggestions -some mine, some Google’s – and a little context:

(Link here, then search with the bar at the top)


Rondonia sits right at the heart of the Amazon rainforest, but might not forever. This timelapse – one of the most worrying – shows the extent of the strip-cutting of the forest to make way for farmland. Look around, and all you can see is more cuts, more tears, less forest. From a political or economic point of view, this is fantastic – Brazil’s economy has grown massively in recent years, and is fast becoming one of the strongest and most stable in the world. But history forces us to look at the future as much as the present.


Dubai, while it had been rich since the discovery of oil in 1966 and its great market for Indian gold had developed later, really exploded in growth from the mid nineties onwards, when the city started to develop its tourism and high-wealth industry and cash in on the strict immigrant labour laws it maintained. You can see the city slowly develop from 1984 until – boom! – it starts building ridiculous skyscrapers and green parks and freaking artificial islands off its coast. It’s an amazing expansion to see condensed into a  few seconds.


London’s amazing just to look at, but scroll east to check out its docklands. They’ve been a site for urban development since 1988, when work on Canary Wharf began to turn the disused docklands into a commercial centre. Look a bit further and you can see The Millenium Dome  spring up, and even catch the beginnings of the Stratford Olympic Park.


This one, while subtle, is amazing. This is a map of the Berlin Wall – the circular wall that enclosed West German-alligned West Berlin with East German East Berlin. In 1984 it was standing. In 1989, it fell. Not only can you see a green patch emerge where the no-man’s land once stood, you can almost see the huge growth that both parts of Berlin experienced after reunification.