Mapping Development Trends in Google N-Grams

December 21, 2010

A few days ago, Google put online a tool designed as a time-suck for the holiday season (HT to Marginal Revolution for the link).  Google N-gram viewer allows you to type in some search terms and it spits out how often those terms appear in Google Books by year of publication.  Google books now contains 5,195,769 digitized books –or about 4% of all books ever published—so that it’s a pretty powerful tool to monitor cultural trends. (Here’s the Science article that describes the database and some of what you can do with it --free registration required).  There are some problems with the database –not least, the optical scanners used to create the corpus sometimes have trouble with blurry print, and on occasion the publication dates are mixed up (which might help to explain this early appearance of the Internet in books from the 1900s).  But people in the development field are well used to noting data quality concerns and getting on with the analysis regardless, so here goes:

  1. In the long term, in choosing between liberty or death, sadly we appear to have chosen death.  See also liberty and security.
  2. Pitting Adam Smith against Karl Marx, it looks like Smith has beaten off the young challenger.
  3. That’s not to suggest, as Smith scholars would remind us, an ideological victory for unfettered capitalism.  And note -- Karl still crushes Friedrich.
  4. Over time, Roy Harrod (father of the theory of economic growth that suggested investment was key) lost out to Robert Solow (who looked to technology) who in turn lost out to Douglass North (who thinks it’s all about institutions).
  5. Dependency theory beat out urban bias as a topic of debate –but both are on the wane.
  6. Conversely, structural adjustment won out over import substitution –although note that the N-Gram viewer doesn’t report if the mentions were positive or negative…  The MDGs have some way to go as a development paradigm to match either of these.
  7. The Human Development Index is still playing catch-up with GDP per capita –but it has grown impressively.
  8. AIDS has a presence in books out of proportion to its share of the global burden of disease.
  9. Aid boosters get more attention than aid critics.
  10. The World Bank is more interesting than the IMF, but both are beaten out by Santa.
Update: Martin Ravallion at the World Bank had the same idea: here is his take on what you can learn about development from N-Grams.  And while we’re at it, watch the rise and fall of communism and compare our existential threat concerns over time.


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