It is 2013 and the internet has become a necessity for most. It is a communication tool, a learning tool, a tool for entertainment. Most importantly though it is a tool that humanists the world over can use to gain (and catalog) insights into the written word and the cultures that these words represent. Patricia Cohen explores this idea further in her article “In 500 Billion Words, New Window on Culture.” She introduces the reader to a particularly interesting tool called Google Ngram that essentially breaks down all of the words in 5.2 million books from the 1500s to 2008 into useable data. Cohen explains these capabilities:
With a click you can see that “women,” in comparison with “men,” is rarely mentioned until the early 1970s, when feminism gained a foothold. The lines eventually cross paths about 1986. You can also learn that Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe don’t get nearly as much attention in print as Jimmy Carter; compare the many more references in English than in Chinese to “Tiananmen Square” after 1989; or follow the ascent of “grilling” from the late 1990s until it outpaced “roasting” and “frying” in 2004.
I did my own experiment with Google Ngram to see what kind of results I would end up with. Interestingly enough, culture was the most used word out of the five I input, reaching the height of its popularity in the 1990’s. These graphs may seem like a fun diversion, but they actually present the possibility for cultural understanding in a way that was not possible before the digital age.
Stephen Ramsay also digs deeper into the potential of the internet in his paper, “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around: or What Do You Do with a Million Books.” Ramsay introduces the idea that there is almost infinite knowledge, and no man can be a master of all of it:
There are so many books. There is so little time. Your ethical obligation is neither to
read them all nor to pretend that you have read them all, but to understand
each path through the vast archive as an important moment in the world’s
duration—as an invitation to community, relationship, and play.
He suggests that screwing around and deciding for yourself what links to click (what books or scholarly papers or articles are of particular interest to you) is an exercise in scholarly research. Browsing is now the path to real learning, in a way that a required reading list can not be. I tend to agree with Ramsay. I have found some of the most interesting ideas and historical accounts by simply stumbling upon them and following the flow of links where they take me.
I’m aware that the average person has reservations about the broad reach of the internet and it’s inherently evil grasp on the world’s population. “We are all turning into zombies with no souls,” – who hasn’t heard someone bemoan the internet and it’s evil nature? Frankly, I am of the opinion that the internet is neutral – it doesn’t control us, and it certainly doesn’t have a mind of its own. Sure, there are people out there who make the internet an unstable, unreliable place, but there are so many more people who are developing life-changing programs and connections using it. Just like with life, if you go out searching for trouble, you are bound to find it. So instead of focusing on the negative; or the seemingly endless void of information, why not screw around a bit and find something worth knowing.