The June 23rd issue of Nature magazine featured a profile of Erez Lieberman Aiden, described in the article as “molecular biologist, applied mathematician and, at 31 years old, the precocious doyen of the emerging field known as the digital humanities.” Among a pretty staggering laundry list of other achievements, Lieberman Aiden, along with his collaborator Jean-Baptiste Michel, is behind “culturomics,” a quantitative approach to analyzing culture.
Lieberman Aiden and Michel were granted access to the millions of books digitized by Google, and are using all of that data to “very, very not-carefully” read through a corpus said to represent 10% of all books ever published. They intend this method of analysis as a revolutionary complement to the traditional “close reading” approach of the humanities. The basis is frequency analysis: Lieberman Aiden and Michel argue that you can learn a great deal by tracking how frequently certain words or phrases have appeared at various points in history. Google’s popular and addictive n-gram viewer, a simple tool that allows anyone to graph the frequency of appearance of words or short phrases across Google’s digital corpus, was built to demonstrate the possibilities for culturomics.
As the Nature story indicates, many people in the humanities have some deep reservations about this new approach. Dan Cohen, director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and someone on the leading edge of innovation in the digital humanities, is quoted as calling the n-gram viewer a “gateway drug” for the digital humanities, which is surely meant as praise. But Cohen expresses anxiety over the attempt to do broad cultural analysis across a database that includes only published books. “I think saying all books equal the DNA of human experience — I think that’s a very dangerous parallel,” says Cohen. The article’s author draws out Cohen’s concerns: “How do you factor in the cultural contributions of furniture, or dance, or ticket stubs at a movie hall? What about all the books that were never published? Or the culture as experienced by the world's vast illiterate populations?”
Lieberman Aiden and Michel are careful to make clear that they value traditional approaches to the humanities, and that they’re not the bum-rushing reformers that much of the coverage of culturomics makes them out to be. In response to one historian/blogger’s take on the Nature article, Lieberman Aiden and Michel dismissed as a “straw-man” the repeated claim that the duo think their work should make any extant method of historical analysis redundant. In the Nature article, Lieberman Aiden is quoted expressing a great deal of respect for traditional approaches to the humanities. “I think you should use the best methods available—and all of them,” he says. “And I think that includes carefully reading texts and trying to get behind what authors think.” The article’s author recounts an anecdote told by Lieberman Aiden one Friday night over Shabbat dinner:
He tells the story of Isaac Casaubon, a sixteenth-century Protestant scholar, who undermined the presumed Egyptian provenance of a set of religious texts by identifying a reference to a Greek play on words—something that could only have been written hundreds of years later. “That point is as objective an interpretive remark as any remark a scientist might make,” says Lieberman Aiden. “So the methods of humanists are very, very formidable. And I think the degree of insecurity they have over whether these methods are here to stay is not really befitting.”