The Technium

The Sudden Appearance of Technology

This cool tool graphs the frequency of words used in US State of Union address since 1790. You enter two different words and this website races them (thus speech wars) in chart form to see which term is more common. You can have fun with the upcomming presidential address. SpeechWars also will chart words from US Inaugural Addresses and from a set of 2008 election speeches. 

Picture 31

Here is a chart racing the terms “future” and “technology” graphed from the historical set of State of Union addresses. Before the 20th century, technology was never mentioned. The future is now more popular than it once was.

  • Reader

    I imagine that now that these kinds of tools are becoming more popular, future State of the Union addresses will be carefully tailored to give high counts of popular words.

  • Erich

    On a whim I decided to read the Fredrik Forsyth book called The Odessa File which generally tells the story of Peter Miller in 1963 Hamburg chasing down a Nazi War criminal… I read the book the first time as a 14 year old in 86 and could relate to it technology wise quite obviously. Upon re-reading the book I realised the main protagonist can now chase down war criminals sitting in his room on the web. This negates the complete chase of nearly 600 pages across germany…. Point is that I think authors have become much more skilled in weaving stories and pop culture literature has moved away from good spy thriller’s ala John Le Carre et al towards fantasy and horror stories… The web cannot negate Gandalf climbing over the misty mountains…

    I know its off topic but still thought its an interesting social phenomenon


  • JKG

    Did you see Luke DuBois’ Hindsight Is Always 20/20 exhibition, Kevin? It basically does just what you described — tracking word frequency in every State of the Union — and then he represents it visually like an eye chart. Pretty cool:

  • AW

    Spelling nazi time!
    ‘upcoming’, not ‘upcomming’.
    Danke schon, damen und herren!

  • Mark Dow

    It seems fair to compare the frequency of use as Google search terms:

    In the last 4 years “technology” has declined by about a factor of two while “future” has held it’s own.

    The other regularity is seasonal, with a “future” bump around the last two months of the year and a sharp “tech” dip near the winter holidays.

  • Dan Delany

    Hi Kevin,

    This is interesting, but I don’t think it accurately represents the way people in the past thought about the future. Technology is a word that has become popular since the dawn of the electromechanical age. Before that, industrialists were just as excited about the way (physical) machines could make life easier. Try testing “technology” against “machinery” or “industry” to see what i mean.

    “innovation,” and “science” however, strengthen your side of the story… interesting!

  • Tom Crowl

    Fun and Revealing Tool!

    All kinds of pairings to try:

    Science is there from the beginning… and George Washington had close to highest number all the way till Truman!

    However Faith DOUBLES Science but LESS THAN either Industry or Agriculture.

    However… Commerce and/or Trade trumps them ALL by a good margin.

    Lot’s more to try!

  • evobrain

    I happened to look at a State of the Union Address by Lincoln in 1862.

    This would have been at the beginning of the American Civil War (1861–1865). The subject is the emancipation of the slaves. In which Lincoln clearly states his view that slaves are no more nor less than property of their slave owners. This is of course appalling!

    But the reason I bring up this speech in the context of Technium is the following table.

    Year Population
    1870 42,323,341
    1880 56,967,216
    1890 76,677,872
    1900 103,208,415
    1910 138,918,526
    1920 186,984,335
    1930 251,680,914

    It is a projection by Lincoln of the future growth in population of the United States. It is interesting that Lincoln equated population growth with Progress. He based his projection on a 35% annual growth rate!

    Today we no longer equate growth in population with progress. Quite the opposite. Lincoln equated increased population with increased production and therefore an increase in wealth of the nation. The increase in population was a large component of Progress from the American perspective of that time.

    Today we don’t talk so much about increased production as increased productivity – that is production per capita. And the way to increase productivity is of course through technology. Therefore at some point American Progress shifted from simple increase in population to ever increasing reliance on technology.

    I suggest that the time this occurred was after WWII and around 1950. Around the same time that the word “technology” started to creep into the State of the Union addresses.

    Today we look to technology for ways to reduce population growth and to increase productivity. This is the currently accepted definition of Progress. Some even go to the extreme of suggesting that the world population needs to be radically reduced to as much as one tenth of its current level. Of course Europe faced the over-population problem many years ago, but for America this is a relatively new phenomenon. America was always the frontier land of boundless growth – not so any longer.


  • evobrain

    @kk: I hope that I did not come off as a Malthusian. I accept the basic premise that a rising population and progress go hand in hand with the caveat that there must also be an accompanying rise in the number of individuals that are in a position to contribute to that growth in technological progress. A society that is reliant on slave labor or a permanent underclass has no incentive to change or progress. Only a society in which people are sufficiently free to choose their own destinies will be a fertile ground for large scale technological progress. Perhaps this is why American capitalist society has so embraced innovation and has widely reaped its benefits.

    I’m intrigued by the idea that perhaps there is an dynamic relationship between population density and technology. Can technology keep up with population growth? Does population growth spur technology? I’m suggesting that perhaps the US population density got slightly ahead of technology in the 50s and that at this point technology is playing catch up rather than leading the way. The result is that even with large scale advances in technology, the economy is just keeping pace with the increasing demands of the population.

    The article you pointed to is The Origins of Progress. It argues against a purely Malthusian perspective. But even when Progress does overcome the Malthusian limits, it comes with a price – human life becomes ever more dependent on technology. This results in a change in the quality of life at the individual level, and changes in our institutions at the societal level. Whether these changes are good or bad is a debate that is ongoing.


    P.S. Maybe technology crept into the State of the Union addresses around 1950 as a result of the Cold War and Sputnik and the Space Race.