11 March 2012

Light Bulbs

Striated cliff walls and a distant Matterhorn as seen from Zermatt, Switzerland. 9 May 2009.
Fractal globule (as opposed to an
equilibrium globule). Obtained here.
Culturomics. For a long while, I've known about this cool little online database called the Ngrams Viewer, developed by (you guessed it) Google. Somehow, they've managed to created a digital, searchable corpus of published text that contains ~4% of all books ever published beginning in about 1800 or so. They also concomitantly coined the term "culturomics" to describe the quantification of cultural trends. If you're more interested, go see the paper in Science they wrote about it (a great read). One of the pioneers of this effort was Erez Lieberman Aiden. Among other achievements, he proposed that the fractal globule is a reasonable 3D structure for DNA packing inside living cells. (Such a structure is reasonable because the DNA organizes bits of related information near each other, rather than tying itself in a ridiculous macromolecular knot. Plus it looks pretty cool.) Erez is a guy you could probably write a whole blog post about. Don't waste your time, though: I'm sure it's already been done, and he doesn't need more attention.

So, enough about that though. Get back to the Ngrams Viewer. This engine has some gusto. You can search anything you want--any word (1-gram) or phrase (i.e. n-gram, or a string of n words) you can think of. Try it! At first, you might not see the power behind this action, but the more you tinker, the more you'll discover interesting patterns. In fact, I bet that you will come up with some n-gram searches or combinations of multiple n-grams that NO ONE else has come up with. You just created some knowledge there. Sweet.

Try typing in a year: "1941." What do you see? I see a sudden spike in written attention to "1941" for the few years leading up to and through 1941, and then a seemingly exponential decay in written instances of "1941." It makes sense: there's a lot more to talk about in regard to "1941" in the immediate lead up to the date, and then relevance has a sort of exponential decay after the year has passed and new years become successively interesting. Try typing in "light bulb." Whaddaya know? No one really wrote a damn thing about it until after Thomas Edison made it an industrially practical item in 1879. Since then, it's been all the (written) rave:
Plot of the frequency of the 2-gram "light bulb" vs. time since 1879.
There are infinite search terms, but I see an interesting pattern: with the development of an idea or item comes a concomitant development of language to express it. Actually, it's really hard (perhaps impossible) to separate the invention from the language about the invention. There was no need to use the 2-gram "light bulb" in any sort of cultural context until light bulbs became a cultural item. The concept of a light bulb didn't exist until the light bulb existed. "1941" as a date didn't exist until we invented the Gregorian calendar, and furthermore, it wasn't interesting to talk about "1941" until 1941. In social constructionist terms, the social construct of "light bulbs" as a consumable item and the 2-gram "light bulb" are an artifact of the light bulb's invention. It essentially appears that the invention cannot exist without the words to describe it. More broadly, it seems that the existence of a cultural item/idea implies the existence of an n-gram to express it, and vise versa (a dual implication):

Existence of Cultural Item <==> Existence of n-gram to describe Cultural Item

Michael Jordan, dunking from the free throw line.
"People ask me if I could fly.
I said 'Yeah ... for a little while.'"
 - MJ
Obtained here.
Extrapolations. I'm a social constructionist, I think. I like to believe that a person cannot know something that they have not experienced. Never hand Michael Jordan a basketball, and he never becomes the greatest basketball player ever. Never show a citizen of North Korea that there is a better way to live than totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship, and they will unknowingly accept propagandized human rights violations all of their lives (ignorance is bliss). Never speak to a person, and they will never learn to communicate. The more new experiences you have, the more you discern your personal preferences, develop skills and passions, figure out how to actualize your potential, and truly have the capacity to create items of redeeming value. Each experience is a brick that builds your house stronger, or maybe a steppingstone into the future.

The scary part, I suppose, is that there is a little bit of luck involved in having all of these experiences, which makes it seem like you have less control. That's life. Some call it fate, but I often find fate to be a bit of a cop out in taking responsibility for you own existence. At best, I think we can only anticipate that unknown experiences will occur and react as best we can in the moment. It's a bit like driving a car on a curvy road; the road will change direction often, but we don't steer the car until the road actually starts to curve. If you (not fate) stop driving the curves, or turn off that road, or change to a new road, the experiences stop or change. Perhaps, the most unfortunate implication of all is that a person may never experience the thing he or she is best at. There is probably another Michael Jordan out there that has never even dreamed of basketball. I'm reminded of Anthony Robbins' advice: "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten." Simply put, trying new things helps you self-actualize. (Aside: read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell if you have not.) 

I'm also a scientist, and I think it is exactly this stepping forth into unknown new experiences that drives me. It's all about experimentation, and every action is an experiment. Each new experiment yields new insights, and these insights are usually small, such as, "Oh, I should wash this dish like this." Sometimes, though, they're broader, and that's exciting. The most important part is to take the step! Run the experiment! See what happens! Then there is something to talk about; a little culture and knowledge has been created. 

* * *

Real Life. First off, semantics. I believe the dual implication in the last section to be true, so I also believe the contrapositive to be true:

NO Cultural Item <==> NO n-gram to describe Cultural Item

That is, I argue that that the lack of an n-gram to describe an item/concept (such as a light bulb) implies that the item does not exist. Otherwise, I argue, there would be an n-gram to describe it. This is what I mean when I write that a person cannot know something they have not experienced. You cannot know or experience what does not exist, and that which you cannot know does not exist!

Because we can track the written records of a huge number of n-grams, we can fairly-accurately pinpoint (in time) the introduction and propagation of, e.g., socioeconomic trendssocial shifts, and cultural identities, even if their specific n-grams have varying frequencies of use. People have come up with some clever strategies to do just this. With the right search terms, you can track your groovy underground concepts (as long as someone wrote about them) backwards in time to see when they started (just like the plot of "light bulb" above).

For me, this is where Constructionism and Culturomics really get powerful, so let's get controversial. Take a look at a couple of modern, not-so-underground cultural identities: Heterosexual and Homosexual. I argue that these identities cannot exist without the 1-grams "Heterosexual" and "Homosexual," respectively. These terms were coined in 1868 by Karl Maria Kertbeny (see the plot), so, by my logic, a person cannot be heterosexual or homosexual before 1868. It's anachronistic.

Plot of the frequencies of 1-grams "Heterosexual" and "Homosexual" vs. Time, post-1860 (before they were created).
Obtained here.
That is, a person cannot behave under the hegemonic script of "Heterosexual" or "Homosexual" in pre-1868 society where these 1-grams (and thus identities) do not exist. Before 1868, it is flat-out wrong to call someone heterosexual or homosexual. It doesn't make sense. (See this quick read for more information, as well as Jonathan Ned Katz' bio regarding the invention of Heterosexuality).

Not Homosexual.
(Socrates and Alcibiades).
Obtained here.
"Wait a second!" you might find yourself saying. "There have always been Heterosexuals and Homosexuals walking around, even if the words didn't exist. Heterosexuals represent the societal norm, and Homosexuals are a subgroup of society that is attracted to the same sex."
Well, actually, that's not true. There have always been man-woman couples and same-sex couples (albeit relatively fewer perhaps), but these couples didn't associate with the Heterosexual and Homosexual identities until the identities existed. Simply, some other hegemonic identities dictated their behavior, most likely motivated by procreation prior to 1868. 

Here's an older, well-known example: the man-boy couples from Socrates' time (~400 BC). They also didn't associate with the "homosexual" identity, nor were those relationships considered "pederasty" because neither concept existed in society. You can read more about that for yourself. Still not convinced? Here's a perfect anaolgy: a person cannot use a light bulb in a society where light bulbs do not exist (i.e. prior to 1879); it is flat-out wrong to call someone a "light bulb user" before 1879. It doesn't make sense, just as using "heterosexual" or "homosexual" before 1868 doesn't make sense. Socrates was just as gay as he was using light bulbs.

* * *

What to take away from all this. Heterosexual and homosexual identites are mere examples of the larger point: all behavior is the expression of an identity into which we are born. You don't have a choice about the identity into which you are born, and this is true for everything from race, religion, and sexuality to the food you eat for breakfast. It dictates much of your behavior. Some people don't like that idea very much. Please understand, however, that I am NOT arguing that people lack free will. Rather, I'm saying your library of behaviors to choose from is constrained by your social identity, and your social identity is further constrained to a specific geographical location and time period and community in which certain social identities exist. That's not a bad thing at all. In fact, it's a pretty interesting lens through which to examine your life. The exciting part is that new experiences allow you to transform and transcend your social identity as you come to know new bits of culture and regurgitate them as your own. That is why traveling rocks!