Sunday, December 19, 2010

Beatles vs Stones: Google Gives the Facts

I know Google takes some hits in the press from those who fear that the company is taking over the world, but for what I pay them — which so far has been zero — I think they are a wonderful company that has offered the world some extremely valuable resources, often at no cost. I'm playing now with Ngram Viewer, one of their latest freebies, and within 10 minutes, it has helped me resolve one of the longest running intellectual questions of my generation: who was the greatest rock band: the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?

At last I have some hard evidence to counter the silly, often drunken or stoned (pun intended) opinions of those who thought the Stones were the greatest. Clearly, the Beatles are the top rock band ever. And not only do they beat-le the Stones, but they also beat-le Elvis and Michael Jackson. You want proof? I got proof.

Ngram accesses a huge database of about 500 billion words printed over the past 200 years. As the New York Times reports: "Google has made a mammoth database culled from nearly 5.2 million digitized books available to the public for free downloads and online searches, opening a new landscape of possibilities for research and education in the humanities." Using Ngram Viewer, anyone — a 4th grader, for instance — can research the frequency of terms and phrases within a body of literature for a given time period. I chose to look at English between 1950 and 2000 to see how often the Beatles were mentioned, especially in comparison to the Stones, Elvis, and Michael Jackson. As you can clearly see in the graph below, the Beatles are mentioned far more than the other performers.
The Beatles vs the Pretenders
Despite the dip in the mid-70s after their breakup, the Beatles never lost prominence over their rivals. I conclude, then, that the Beatles were culturally more important and more prominent than the Stones, Elvis, or Michael Jackson. To my mind, that makes them the greatest rock band.

I did a bit more research in Ngram Viewer and discovered that John Lennon was wrong when he said in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ and that Christianity would fade away. As you can see below, Jesus Christ is far more prominent in the literature than the Beatles or any of the others or all of them together. Jesus Christ is the Superstar, at least in this analysis, and the Beatles are a far distant second.
Jesus Christ vs the Pretenders
And I did all of this in about 10 minutes. Really. Using Google's Ngram Viewer to access their database of 5.6 million books and over 500 billion words, I was able to generate an enlightening view into the long, strange journey that we've all been on since my birth in 1951.

Thanks, Google.

And what does this have to do with complexity and critical thinking? Well, just a quick note: aggregation is one of the keys to critical thinking. You must be able to gather data from a wide range of sources to have a chance of capturing the complexity of any slice of reality. And then you must be able to slice and dice that data to look at it from a variety of perspectives to illuminate it, to inform it, to give it meaning. Ngram Viewer gives us access to a collection of data that none of us could have ever hoped to have access on our own, and it gives us a tool that allows us to manipulate that data in ways that highlight and clarify it without ever destroying the context from which it comes. This is very powerful.