David Brooks: What Our Words Tell Us

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David Brooks
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New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote that our word choice proves that we’ve become a more individualistic society. Brooks cited Ngram studies which showed that in the last 50 years, words like “self” and “unique” have been on the rise while “community" and "share” have declined.

For a big-picture look at the development of a society, he tells Kurt Andersen, “you’re looking for data. And the Ngram can provide a picture of cultural shifts.”

Big Data has gotten a frosty reception from some academics in the humanities, who favor analysis based on close reading and other traditional methods. “Believe me understanding the synapses will never help us explain the creation of Macbeth or Othello,” Brooks says. However, it’s short-sighted to be suspicious of these new tools. “The humanities are in decline because people have lost sight of the core mission. Humanists have spent too much time talking about social repair and not enough time talking about internal improvement.”