When science-fiction literature aficionados discuss the way our world has developed to meet the expectations of past authors, the dialogue quickly becomes a pursuit of defining where we now sit on a scale between Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.
Margaret Atwood penned an introduction to a 2007 reprint of Brave New World, in which she described modern society as combining a dual nature – borrowing from both Orwell and Huxley’s visions of humanity’s future. In one, an intrusive technocratic state maintains utter control via strict surveillance. The other presents a ‘softer’ view, in which humans are eternally distracted with pleasure-seeking activities and thus blind to the many evils around them.
While Atwood acknowledges the surveillance state, which she observes to have only become more obvious since the advent of the terrorist attack, 9/11, she points out that this has had the effect of driving us toward more Brave New World behaviour, asking “how close have we come, in real life, to the society of vapid consumers, idle pleasure-seekers, inner-space trippers and programmed conformists that [Brave New World] presents?”.
If all this seems a little esoteric (and irrelevant, given the title of this article), all I can say is that you consider the case of Google. As a tool, Google’s search engine is incredibly powerful for users and organisations alike. The more we use it, the more information it has about us; what we want to buy, where we want to go and how we plan to get there. To give a very limited example, I recently performed some research in Google Trends, which provides limited data* on the frequency given terms are searched. To be clear: this isn’t an individual’s data, it’s aggregate. There are ways to track the behaviour and internet usage of individuals, which includes the use of software such as ‘cookies’, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Searches for Aussie Adventure Activities in 2014
In Google Trends (you’re welcome to navigate over to that site and play around with it yourself), I entered a number of keyword terms that I thought would be relevant to our audience, setting the parameters to consider data from 2014 Australian searches only.
To begin with, I wanted to compare searches for ‘hiking’, ‘bushwalking’, ‘kayaking’ and ‘rock climbing’ as a way to get a general sense of the popularity of these activities over time (the distinction between hiking and bushwalking is hard to define and I’d say their usage is probably interchangeable from person to person).
The popularity in 2014 for these terms was given as:
- Hiking – 70 (average), peaking at April 20-26
- Rock climbing – 55 (average), peaking at July 6-12
- Kayaking – 22 (average), peaking at December 28 – January 3, 2015
- Bushwalking – 14 (average), peaking at April 20-16
Update: This data has been tweaked to reflect the fact that the figures do not represent a searches-per-week rate, but rather the normalised score (from 0-100) that Google gives each term based on overall popularity. Actually weekly searches are likely to be much higher than the figures provided.
Looking at these figures, minimal analysis and common sense need be applied to make sense of whatever seasonality is at play here. People are researching these activities most around holiday periods (specifically; school holidays). What I found even more interesting is the disparity between hiking and bushwalking in their usage. Hiking is the more universally accepted term for an extended walk outdoors, whereas bushwalking is generally taken to be a more uniquely Australian activity (this is true, Google doesn’t have a single incidence of a search for ‘bushwalking’ outside of this country for the entire year).
So why isn’t bushwalking a more relevant term for Australians in 2014?
Perhaps bushwalkers aren’t as likely to search online regarding their activity as kayakers are, for example? Maybe beginners figure they don’t need to search for the term, whereas rock climbers will need to find their nearest indoor centre, gear and so on?
Evolving Language and the Online Feedback Loop
The next obvious experiment was to compare the performance of bushwalking versus an international homologue, the only suitable example I could think of was to input the term ‘tramping’ (for the uninitiated, that’s the Kiwi word for bushwalking). The results to this search I find even more interesting than the last.
On average, people searched for the term ‘tramping’ much more on average (score of 70), whereas Google records a score of just over 40 for ‘bushwalking’. Interestingly, almost all of these searches occurred within the respective countries. This indicates that, despite New Zealand’s smaller population, more of its inhabitants are interested in their local version of hiking. Moreover, when compared with the term ‘hiking’, New Zealanders are still searching for tramping more.
At this point, there was only one test left – a comparison of the local terms and the universal terms over time. The results are as expected, but no less disappointing for it: both bushwalking and tramping have significantly declined in their use as search terms in the past decade, while hiking continues to climb. The trends are stark, and while Kiwis are still clinging to their national term, it seems that in only a few years tramping will become superseded by hiking online.
So why is this happening and what does it mean? Certainly I don’t think it likely that the term ‘bushwalking’ will become extinct anytime soon (although it will eventually), but it does seem to be declining in popularity. This is no doubt partially as a result of fluctuations in demographics. As Australians leave our shores and spend more time overseas, while new visitors and immigrants become Australians in turn, the effects of an increasingly globalised world is leaving a mark on our language.
However, my personal belief is that this is occurring faster as a result of centralised, online systems such as Google itself. It’s a tough thing to prove (I’m not an etymologist and the only extensive data I have access to is Google’s own), but I hypothesise that web searchers themselves are progressively using more general language in their searches in order to return the correct results. For example, why would you search for ‘bushwalking gear’ after you realise you’ll get a wider range of relevant results by searching for ‘hiking gear’? In writing this article, I wanted to find an unrelated example that might add credence to the concept of a feedback loop. My thinking is that as people learn to search for ‘hiking gear’, more publishers and gear suppliers are going to gear their own marketing towards those terms (thus, a self-reinforced loop as the public see the words used less and less).
Is our global, highly-technological world actively killing off the usage of bushwalking or is there still time for a resurgence? All I know is that the solution for the Orwell versus Huxley debate lies in a good, long walk in the wilderness.
*The data provided by Google Trends doesn’t claim to be complete or exact, it should instead be taken more as a guide.