Culturomics and the Evolution of Culture in Measurable Terms
A pair of Harvard mathematicians have leveraged the power of Google's massive effort to digitize the world's published text to begin a quantitative analysis of culture, a study they've termed Culturomics. In this video, Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel—co-founders of the Cultural Observatory at Harvard and Visiting Faculty at Google—show how Culturomics can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. Though it obviously can't account for oral culture and other non-published elements, the reliance on published materials is great for its measurement, and the data sample is enormous.
The censorship section is particularly interesting, I think. Take these slides. The first shows how the Hollywood Ten were affected by refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The frequency of published mention of these individuals declines conspicuously through the 1950s.
And if you'd like to play with your own terms, try the Google Books Ngram Viewer, where you can enter your own terms or phrases to see their frequency of use through a set period of years.