Google Trends and the meaning of life

September 18, 2006

George Dyson reports: “My visit to Google? … The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. ‘We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,’ explained one of my hosts after my talk. ‘We are scanning them to be read by an AI.’” (onlamp.com)

Google Labs offers a tiny window onto some of the content analysis systems that will eventually combine into a practical artificial intelligence. Projects such as Google Sets demonstrate the latent potential for massive index archives like Google to learn through semantic association.

Other projects, like Google Trends, illustrate a broader vision, going beyond individual texts and their relationships to one another and looking instead at things like regional search behaviour patterns (for example, you can find out which city produces the most searches for the keyword “cold”), incidence of related news articles (to observe such things as the spikes in news references to “peace” that always follow the spikes in references to “terror”) and other data relating to the habits of search-engine users around the world. And while this information may ultimately be of most use to the AI coders at Google, it’s a goldmine for the present-day Mass-Observationist. Here’s a list of fifteen things I noted during a recent session with Google Trends:

  1. South Korea is consistently more popular than North Korea. “South Korea”, “North Korea”
  2. The beard is a much more frequent subject of search queries than is the moustache: “Moustache”, “Beard”
  3. French philosopher Michel Foucault is more often searched for than his contemporary Jacques Derrida: “Foucault”, “Derrida”
  4. Hockey is of more concern to web users than NASCAR: “NASCAR”, “Hockey”
  5. “Potato” and “tomato” searches yield very different seasonal results: “Potato”, “Tomato”
  6. The graph tracking the incidence of the keywords “abortion” and “terror” shows a predictable pattern, with both words spiking in tandem just before the ’04 US election: “Abortion”, “Terror”
  7. War and peace maintain their usual relationship: “War”, “Peace”
  8. Something big seems to be happening RIGHT NOW on the “tube” front, and it probably has something to do with you: “Tube”
  9. Web searchers want to know more about how to make things than they do about how to break them apart: “Create”, “Destroy”
  10. Laughter is the best medicine: “Tragic”, “Comic”, “Epic”, “Heroic”
  11. Hats, unlike boots, have a consistent and timeless appeal: “Hats”, “Boots”
  12. Dancing became an urgent subject of inquiry in early 2006: “Dancing”
  13. “Rich” is a more popular search than “poor”, perhaps because “poor” appears more often in the news: “Rich”, “Poor”
  14. Pepsi has a slight edge over Coke, and both companies seemingly follow a similar press-release schedule: “Coke”, “Pepsi”
  15. People want to think happy thoughts, perhaps because of the differential between joy and pain: “Joy”, “Pain”
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