The 20th Century, as Told Through One Amazing Data Visualization

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An interactive look at the history of General Electric serves up a picture of trends in innovation and technology since 1892.

To make the above interactive, GE's data-visualization team scanned each of the company's annual reports from 1892 to 2011 -- 6,000 pages -- and processed them for keywords such as "digital" or "solar". Each column is a year's report; each rectangle represents pages. The pages appear vertically, with the cover at the top and in order from there down. If you click on a page, you can zoom in to see the actual reference (though unfortunately some of the scans are a little tough to read). Pop it out to full screen; play around with it for a bit. It's power is, after all, visual.

One of the most striking changes in terms of language is how the word "international" has gone our of favor and "global" has come to stand in its place.

Compare international:

international.png

With global:

global.png

I dug around on this a bit, to try to figure out some reasons propelling the shift. First: GE is not alone on this. Google's n-gram tool lets us track these two words as they appear in books over the same period. While GE's shift was more dramatic, Google finds a similar growth in the word "global" in recent years.

globalinternational.png

Paging through GE's instances of these two words, they tend to modify similar nouns: markets, business, customers, and so on. But their sensibilities seem slightly, slightly different. International seems to have a more bilateral sense: us and people elsewhere, our nation (international does, after all, stand as national's foil) and the others. 

Global, on the other hand, evokes something a bit more networked, a sense of a company embedded in a complex criss-crossing of relationships, countries, and economies. GE's shift to the word "global" goes hand-in-hand with ... globalization, naturally. As the world became a more tightly networked, interconnected ball -- more supranational than international -- the language changed, subtly, to reflect that.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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