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Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Google Ngram: Useful or Useless?

One of the newest editions to Google brand, is the word counting tool Ngram, it has the ability to search their database of books  and tell us the frequency in which words appear. It is able to tell us how many times per thousand a single word appears, now this all seems like hocus pocus, and it most probably is but what interests historians is how this can be used with academic research. The program is very entertaining, it provides you with that “hmm interesting” moment. It is also able to process huge amounts of data which would take a human a life time to gather, but how useful is this really. I can see how these programs can be used by marketeers and other such professions, they would be able to recognise how words may be perceived or how recognisable or popular certain words may be. To as historian though, in its current form I am unable to see how it can be considered academically useful, most of the time I search terms in relation to current historical projects, I only end up reaffirming what I could predict by knowing a few basic facts, for instance we can see that the Great War only became the First World War in the 1940’s and this helps us understand when people began to see the Second conflict becoming a World War, but this is nothing new. We do not need to count the words in a book to see changes in people’s perceptions, we can gather this information from more reliable sources.

World War, Great War search

Google Ngram also has its drawbacks in its reliability, The OCR system used has some flaws which cannot be ignored. In the lecture covering the new tool, the Lecturer uses the example of “Fuck” and “Suck”, showing us a graph which looks to show the word “Fuck” being used relatively frequently in pre-1900s literature, before dying out in 1850 or so and coming back into use in 1960, however what we are really shown is the Ngram  OCR system  misjudging the use of the long “F” instead of an “S” in 19th century literature. This highlights how the OCR can in fact misinform us and make us see a pattern or shift in language which has a completely different motive to what we could presuppose. Another drawback would be that it only uses the written word, and in this sense when looking at 19th century literature, we are only seeing what an elite part of the population has read. There was still low literacy rates and so it would be difficult to generalise shifts in ideas or changes in language which encapsulate the total population. For these reasons I feel the Google Ngram reader in its current form has minimal uses for historians, and until the OCR is reformed and until we can refine searching or create a phrase searching system then for academic historians i see it being nothing more than another form of procrastination. I mean don’t get me wrong, the system is amazing, every good idea has to start somewhere and this could be the transition phase for a project which could change the way we look at books and literature. However until we really find an essential use for this tool it remains a toy thing for Google, who seem to create things just because they have the money and brain power to do it. They are even in the process of producing a driver-less car, believe it or not which highlights the diverse nature of their business, it seems they are becoming a multi-national with a proverbial ‘finger’ in every pie. The success of this project is yet to convince me, I feel a more in-depth look at how it works and what others have been able to deduce from these graphs and figures may help me change my mind.

 

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A Digital Historian

This is my first attempt at creating a blogpost and I suppose I should inform you as to how i got here. I am currently studying towards a History degree at Hertfordshire University. Whilst applying for university I had my heart set on a sport psychology course, with a vision of becoming a world class football coach, a dream which changed with the realisation that it was a sector which had very little oppurtunity for work. Being that the benefits of a degree in the area would not give advantage over experience. So here I am having chosen a more academic degree to pursue, after two years of student life, with seemingly unendless research and referencing of essays I have finally found blogging to be a useful part of my degree. One of the current modules I am studying is focussed upon Digital History, a subject I am a complete novice in. In this blog I shall inform you as to how I am finding the course, and will try to educate you with the information I have been learning. It seems strange to be able to speak in first person when writing for a university course, but that is the beauty of blogging in relation to a degree. It seems to give you a different use for your research, one where you can be formal and create an unedited view of the world. No need to proofread or be critical of writing style. Its a freedom which can only be realised when you enter this online world of history. But this is also the downside of using internet sites and blogs in relation to projects, they do not give you that aire of reliability that comes with a dusty book found in the darkest corners of a library. For instance I could say that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1966, and some unsuspecting amatuer historian could take that for being truth, not to say that I would be using this to mislead on misinform but I am just highlighting a point. However for this module we are actively encouraged to find and analyise these online resources we are told to stay well away from. This course seems to have engaged me thoroughly with the technology available at your fingertips. I would recommend it to any current or future history undergrad as I see History having nowhere else to expand, other than onto the internet and this really represents the future of History research and projects. With the explosion of crowd sourcing on websites such as wikipedia and history pin I really can see the beginings of a rise in popularity of History online.

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