Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Clouds of Information

Under the theory that word selection by itself provides information about a communication, a variety of tools have been developed for the statistical analysis of texts.

It can be as simple as counting words. For example, Andrew Sullivan in his The Daily Dish blog over at The Atlantic has a recent post entitled Fact-Checking George Will. In it, he takes Will to task for characterizing the Obamas as being narcissistic during a recent overseas trip. My take on his discussion of Will: "Don't bother me with the facts! I've got a point to make."

A more complex version of word-counting is showing up all over the blogosphere in the word clouds that summarize whole sites in a graphical way. One of the more interesting (and fun) versions of such an analysis tool was developed by an IBM research scientest and can be found at the Wordle site. I found it via the James Fallows post A nice tool for envisioning rhetoric. He points to the inaugural speech analysis that the developer, Jonathon Feinberg, did to show off the tool.

While spending a bunch of time driving to soccer fields to referee kids, I came up with the idea of using Wordle to portray some of the more important socio-cultural roots of our society. To visually portray the importance of concepts over time. To see if I learned anything new. To see if I could inject an element of the aesthetic into the mix. To see if a more modern technique of concrete poetry is useful in the search for knowledge.

The result is The Gist of the Matter.

As a very long-time atheist who would have to characterize himself as culturally Judeo-Christian, the choice of the documents reflects that background. There are probably many of us who would fall into the same category. I've found it encouraging to clearly recognize the shift from god-speak to secularism over time.

So, the points of discussion I see are:

* Is this kind of visual analysis useful to those of us who focus on words?

* And, if so, can it be used to help combat the drivel we encounter out on the intellectual playing fields of society?

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