Google Timelines

On Monday Dave Lester pointed to the release of Google’s new timeline view of search results. Found History has often commented on the importance of timelines in public understanding of history and amateur historical practice, so this seems like it could be a big development in that space.

Google points out that the timeline view works best for people, places, and other similar searches and suggests Thomas Jefferson as a good example. As Dave points out, the software groups frequencies of events (search results) by decade, and at first glance the results seem pretty encouraging. Jefferson’s timeline, for example, has peaks in the 1770s and 1800s—just where you’d expect them:

Thomas Jefferson timeline

Being somewhat suspicious of the representativeness of Google’s hand-picked example, however, I tried a more obscure search for George Sarton, founder of history of science in America:

George Sarton timeline

To my pleasant surprise, Sarton’s timeline turned out to be nearly as good as Jefferson’s, peaking in the 1910s when Sarton was getting married, finishing his dissertation, founding his journal Isis, and relocating to America.

Nevertheless there are a few pretty significant problems with Google’s new timelines. To start the timelines only display the frequency with which certain dates appear in connection with a given search term rather than tying these dates to actual events in the life of the search subject. We don’t see what Sarton did in the 1910s. We only see that he did something (or more precisely that lots of people on the web have pointed out that he did something). Viewing this kind of timeline—i.e. one without named events—seems to me a little like watching an old time silent movie with your eyes closed. You know something is happening because the music gets louder or quicker, but you don’t know what.

In this regard a Google timeline is at best an activity map of a given historical actor’s life, demonstrating for instance that Jefferson did more and more important things in the 1770s than in the 1740s and 50s. If that’s the case, Google’s new visualization falls victim to Dan Cohen’s “big whoop” (my term, not Dan’s) criticism. Pointing to a visualization of the full text of the New Testament which showed (surprise!) that Jesus sits at the center of the narrative, Dan lamented that too many digital humanities visualizations “merely use computational methods to reveal the obvious in fancy ways.” Google’s Jefferson timeline is another case in point. Is anyone surprised that Jefferson did more in his 20s, 30s, and 40s than as an eight year old?

Despite these problems, however, I do see something new here. Google’s is one of the first projects I can think of that attempts to move beyond using computational means to answer factual historical questions (our H-Bot software has been doing this for a couple years now) and actually tries to provide something approximating historical interpretation, that tries to put factual information into a narrative framework—even if that narrative tells us little more than Sarton was busier in 1910 than in 1940 or that Jefferson did something in 1776 and nothing in 1752. If we all agree that the real work of history isn’t about names and dates, then the real work of digital history has to be more than that as well. Digital historians need to think about computational methods for producing historical narratives not just historical facts, for producing historical knowledge rather than merely uncovering historical information. I guess what I’m talking about is artificial historical intelligence, and although Google’s timelines aren’t that, they’re certainly a gesture in that direction. They’re certainly something to watch.

2 Replies to “Google Timelines”

  1. Thanks for writing this up Tom. I tried two other examples, Vaclav Havel, and myself. The Havel timeline wasn’t bad, but the one for me was. Why? Because it included a lot of results from decades before I was born (dates picked up from articles I’ve written that have since been posted online) and from websites (like CHNM’s) where my name appears. So, for instance, my timeline has a lot of activity in the 1980s, but that’s from the bios of various colleagues in the history department.

    So I think this is a good start by Google, but, like their search results, still has a way to go before it gives us what we were really looking for.

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