Nearly 5.2 million digitized books equal around 500 billion words, an ocean of data that Google has made accessible to anyone through a simple interface. Cultural trends can come alive before your eyes.
Enter up to five words or phrases into a simple search and see their popularity graphed through the years, reflecting their use in books published from as early as 1500 all the way to 2008. Languages other than English include French, Spanish, Chinese, German, and Russian.
The axis on the right with the percent signs answers the question: of all the words or phrases contained in our sample of books written in the language selected and published in the location associated with that language, what percentage are that specific word or phrase?
A Snapshot of America: Rising Awareness of Social Issues
When you enter the phrase “child abuse,” for example, you see a gigantic increase of the use of it in books published since 1950 in the U.S. More and more Americans were interested in reading and writing about child abuse.
Entering “child abuse,mental illness,Prozac” shows a snapshot of the growing stress on American society since the 1980s: in the late ’80s the prevalence of the use of the phrases in books has grown, evidence of more being written about the problems as the problems became more prominent.
The rise of interest in social issues from the 1950s through the late 1990s indicates not only rising awareness of social problems among Americans of that era but also a certain level of interest in those issues. One also sees this in the graph for homelessness: a massive upward trend begins in 1980 and then peaks in the late 1990s before starting to fall.
Social problems seem to have received most of their attention by the end of the 20th century. After the year 2000, child abuse and mental illness were less prominent in books published. What has led to the decline of interest in social issues?
A Sudden Shift at Century’s Turn
Not only child abuse, homelessness, and mental illness have received less attention; traditional issues such as jobs, the economy, and unemployment have also been written about less and less since the turn of the 21st century. All these issues were gaining prominence since the 1960s, peaking in the 1990s, and seeing steep decline in the 21st century. Clearly, Americans seem to have become less interested in many of those traditional issues since the turn of the 21st century. But why?
What has been happening since the turn of the century that reduced America’s interest in social issues? Certainly those issues have not been eliminated. While the nation has certainly been very conservative in the first decade of the 21st century, underlying that conservatism has been a fundamental apathy and loss of compassion. Americans show a definite social issues fatigue, and interest in issues such as child abuse, mental illness, jobs, unemployment, and homelessness has fallen.
America Turns to God
Another fascinating phenomenon has been the vast increase in religion among Americans after the turn of the 21st century. If you enter the phrase God into the Ngram Viewer, you see a decline through the late 1950s but then a steep increase, almost to the levels of interest at the turn of the 20th century.
Taken together, the loss of interest in social issues and the rise in interest in religion seem to point to a turning away from the world on the part of many Americans.