At this year’s CeBIT computer expo, one European design studio took the notion of Big Data very literally. Asked to create an exhibit for Code_n, a self-described “international initiative for digital pioneers, innovators, and groundbreaking startups,” KRAM/WEISSHAAR installed a 32,000-square-foot, floor-to-ceiling series of graphics on hanging canvas using data sources like Google Ngram.
On one wide expanse of wall, the 295-foot-long Retrospective Trending installation put Google Ngram data into perspective by graphing more than 400 terms according to the frequency with which they appear in the search engine’s 4-billion-book database, which spans the years 1800 to 2008. The terms visualized include political, scientific, cultural and philosophical themes, and include everything from “God” to “utopia” to “big data.”
Words like man, nature, quantum mechanics, DNA synthesis, Napster, and morality make an appearance. Similar or related terms are grouped together, their graphs shown overlapping to track their relative usage between 1800 and 2008. You can see the slow rise of words like “data” and “big data” during the 20th century, compared to the decrease in mentions of God, or track how frequently different presidents are mentioned over time. (Lyndon Johnson got a little spike in 2005!) You can see when words begin to take hold in the collective consciousness, like when people begin using the phrase “Big Bang,” in the 1970s, as the theory gains acceptance–two decades after the name was coined.
In the brutal aftermath of World War I, mentions of the word utopia rise dramatically. Not surprisingly, this fervor for a better world coincided with the rise of modernism, when architects like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright were busy re-imagining the built world as a series of utopian communities. Utopia has a been a word writers have been concerned with in greater and greater numbers since.
Kram and Weisshaar see these little upticks as part of an age-old battle for the English lexicon, where words fall in and out of fashion, but some ideas, like will, reasoning, and nature, stay relatively constant over the ages.
“Re-imagined as an overlapping series of gradients, each polychrome precipice articulates the prevalence and staying power of human histories, beliefs, concepts, theories and inventions,” the designers write. “The space of the hall is redefined by hundreds of these rotated prismatic turrets, each monuments to human innovation, enterprise and thought; each peak and sweep a battle of relevance.”