Google's unresting laboratories have come up with a database you can use to track words, phrases, concepts through hundreds of years worth of literature. I'm still not convinced that this is useful, but like many another app it's certainly fun in a frivolous kind of way. The Ngram Viewer allows you to search multiple terms within set periods (say 1800 - 1950) so you can compare their rates of usage in a wide range of books.  My early experiments with it haven't proved particularly fruitful, but no doubt the user rather than the technology is at fault.

Wikipedia tells me that “An n-gram is a subsequence of n items from a given sequence. The items in question can be phonemes, syllables, letters, words or base pairs according to the application.” Wikipedia also warns me that “The introduction to this article provides insufficient context for those unfamiliar with the subject” and invites me to improve it. If I knew what an n-gram was I probably would.

The age of metrics

I heard Anand Giridharadas talking about the age of metrics, in which our increasing use of computers is gradually digitising our minds. He makes the very good point that in this age, where anything can be proved with metrics, everything must be justified metrically, so things that have not traditionally been quantifiable, such as the arts and humanities, have now to come up with numbers to justify continued support. In his own research field of politics, the influence of metrics brings greater rigour but at the price of having less to say about the world's big questions. The biggest losers in this intellectual economy are the most intuitive or unquantifiable disciplines, into which category literature neatly falls. 

This misplaced emphasis on numbers has been evident in English departments for some time, especially in the ludicrous exercise of measuring viability by numbers of publications, which every teacher and scholar of literature knows is bunk but none is in a position to defy. What I find most interesting is that not only the mode but the message of much literature is opposed to quantification. The whole idea of recording human experience in words rather than in numbers has bypassed the funders, managers and assessors of research excellence, who have no clue and no interest in the content of the research they fund, manage and assess. (Incidentally, in the 1980s with the early ascendency of computers, a trend emerged in which literature was analysed numerically, using new technology to measure the use of images and rhymes and so establish meaning. It wasn't long before everybody realised how silly this was, and went back to the more intuitive and intellectually supple methods of analysis, what Monica Fludernik has called “the creative endowment of significance.”)

An article in this weekend's Canberra Times made the same point in discussing Gordon Brown's proposal to slash hundreds of millions from universities in the UK. I find this decision, undoubtedly based on metrics, short-sighted in the extreme.  Apart from beggaring belief, it raises the basic question, do we want to have a civilisation or don't we? In a civilisation, like the one we're in the process of digitising, the most civilised and civilising things are often the least measurable.