Category: History


Culturomics: Google Ngram Viewer

Has anybody been having fun looking words and concepts up on the Google Ngram Viewer? The latest addition to the growing arsenal of quantitative research tools for the humanities aims to study the evolution of words, concepts, etc in culture, like those real scientists do in biology etc.

As interesting as the idea is, one can immediately spot some inherent faults in the system…

This is my search for the word internet. Surpsisingly, it shows some use of the word around the 1900 mark. Looking at the results in the 1800-1905 bracket, we find this page. Now, as the software scans pdfs of some really old books documents the characters it looks for are occasionally distorted or slightly different. One of the results bears the title THE GENTLEMAN’S MAGAZINE AND HIFTORICAL CHRONICLE – Page 466 and dates from 1806. It would have been very interesting to find a mention of the word internet in a document dating from 1806, so I clicked on the link, only to find out that the text made reference to a Captain Infernet, the writer possibly using the letter -f in the place of an -s as he does elsewhere in the text.

The next result is from the Journal of the Chemical Society, Volume 65, dating from 1894. The highlighted word here reads interact, not internet, but the -a and -c might look a bit like an -n and -e, respectively. And so it goes…

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The Art of Sidney Sime

Sidney Sime was an amazing illustrator but his work is really hard to find. He worked on books by Lord dunsany, W. H. Hodgson, Arthur Machen etc. Here are some of his illustrations, courtesy of Golden Age Comic Book Stories:

Scientists believe that an ecological experiment by Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker might hold the key to the colonisation of Mars.

Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and Hooker’s visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away. Its existence depends entirely on what geologists call the mid-Atlantic ridge. This is a chain of underwater volcanoes formed as the ocean is wrenched apart.

Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens – where Hooker’s father was director – shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.

The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The “cinder” would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.

Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.

Dr Wilkinson describes the vegetation of “Green Mountain” – as the highest peak is now known – as a “cloud forest”. The trees capture sea mist, creating a damp oasis amid the aridity.

(via BBc News)

Francis Spufford has had a long-standing interest in technology and its social significance. Among other things, he has edited (with Jenny Uglow) the really cool anthology Cultural Babbage, a selection of essays on old technologies and their intersection with culture, politics and society, and has written Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin, an affectionate look at past British technological achievements.

Red Plenty is a different animal though. It’s not really history and not really fiction. It reads like a hybrid of both and it really works. Following a number of historical and fictitious characters, Red Plenty reads much like an episodic novel, with loosely linked chapters providing a worm’s-eye view of the implementation of scientific principles in everyday life in the Soviet Union, from the 50s to the late 70s. In that sense it is more a work of social rather than intellectual history, which succeeds in showing very econonomicaly why state-initiated and ran programmes of social reform and improvement fail. Yes, Spufford takes as his subject Soviet Russia, a very prominently intrusive regime, but parallels are effortlessly drawn with western, capitalist, societies.

Inasmuch as initial impetus for the project stemmed from a very real ideological antagonism, its end is one of energy and innovation that exhausted itself in the futility of that antagonism. At the height of the Cold War, one-upmanship, particularly military and industrial, was the name of the game (Sputnik etc). In the race for cultural and ideological sovereignity there’s no scope for the improvement of everyday life. Sound familiar?

Where Norbert Wiener believed that a cybernetic social theory would benefit from and would lead towards a more liberal, less rigid system, where feedback would freely bounce among different social strata, both the Soviet government and industrial management opposed such a loose framework and emphasised, for different reasons, the need for a controlled top-down structure. For Khrushchev, communism could only work as a tightly ran machine. The apparatus had to be centrally controlled, not allowing for the possibility that input could be generated by other levels. Many of the advantages of cybernetics therefore crumbled on ideological grounds. There can be no room for accomodation in a goal-oriented, top-down system, where everything connects and reflects on anything else, in an infinite regression. Factory managers would not be able to hide their inneficiency, while bureaucrats would have to work more in order to cover for failures and bad planning.

Spufford discusses the tension between the necessity for state control and the idealism of cyberneticians by focussing on what are essentialy vignettes, scenes from the lives of people (both fictional and historical), scientists, appparatchiks, politicians etc, interspersed with factual historical introductions that provide the necessary political, social and historical background for each of the book’s several units. Some of the chapters give the sense of descritions inspired by photographs, static and detailed. Village squares, landscapes, factories, offices, all become the canvas on which the futility of the endeavour becomes painfully clear, where everyday life intersects with the seeming abstractions of science, with the weight of political struggle.

I’m not going to discuss whether fictional representation is more or less ligitimate or biased than a strictly traditional historical study in this context. Red Plenty is not an accusatory, judgemental rant; rather, it gives off a sense of disappointment that an experiment such as this had to fail, while it provides a framework for considering the very possibility that such a bold move could ever succeed.

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