Monday, December 20, 2010

My contribution to the Google Ngrams show

Google released its Ngrams tool two weeks ago and everyone seems to have tried something or the other with it.  (Some folks also pointed out wisely that we need to make sure that the data this visualizations rely upon is accurate -- or at least we need to find a way to estimate its accuracy.)

But anyway, back to my point.  In our Social Theory class this semester, we read David Harvey's "The Condition of Postmodernity."  Harvey's thesis in this book is that what we call postmodernity is a specific cultural manifestation of the changes in the economic framework.  The structure of capitalism, he thinks (like a good Marxist), changed in the 1970s and went from a regime of Fordism combined with Keynesianism to a regime of flexible accumulation (looser labor laws, easier capital flows, etc.).  Postmodernism is a specific cultural outshoot -- the superstructure -- of these changes in the base.

So.  I put in "productivity" and "efficiency" into the Ngram and this is the graph that came up: (click on the figure to see a bigger version)

Interesting, isn't?  I consider "efficiency" perhaps to be the word associated with Fordism.  "Productivity," used so much in corporations today, seems to me more of an instance of the new post-1970s economy of flexible accumulation (at least according to Harvey). 

The number of instances of "efficiency," peaks around 1920 and then falls (although it rebounds and keeps fairly steady).  The 1970s are the period when flexible accumulation starts to replace Fordism.

On the other hand, "productivity" is pretty non-existent, starts to increase around 1960 and peaks a little after 1980 and then drops down again.  Again, this seems to vaguely conform to the Fordism to flexible accumulation shift.

I am not really going anywhere with this and I suspect I may be getting something wrong as well.  Still, it's suggestive though, isn't it?  Worth investigating.

Anyone have any suggestions, ideas, explanations?

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