Machine-Made History: Parsing the Most Important Events of the Global 1970s

Over at the blog of the History Lab–an endeavor led by Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly and statistician David Madigan “to use data science to recover and repair the fabric of the past”–there is a recent fascinating blog post that applies statistical analysis to 1.7 million U.S. diplomatic cables from 1973-1977 (the years the State Department first started using electronic systems, and coinciding with Henry Kissinger’s term as National Security Advisor) to ask a simple question in a smart way: what were the most important events of the decade?

The team analyzes the data set for peak “bursts”–periods when the traffic for a given subject or geographical area was out of proportion to the normal cable traffic for that subject or area–to highlight the most high-impact events of the decade. Further, for added context, the blog features the analysis of UC Berkeley’s Daniel Sargent, a historian of U.S. foreign relations whose acclaimed book A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s was published earlier this year with Oxford University Press. In his comment, Sargent compiles his own ranking of key events from the 1970s, leading to a fruitful discussion of how historians can best combine traditional qualitative analysis with electronic tools that allow them to generate “objective” rankings of “the most important” events of a given decade.

What, then, were the most important events? The Yom Kippur War? The collapse of Bretton Woods? Deng Xiaoping’s reforms to Chinese socialism? Find out the results of this “man vs. machine” competition at The History Lab.

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