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Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science


Edited by Scott Moyers

“Pentland’s insights make human behavior less mysterious, but more amazing. Social Physics will make you see yourself and your world differently.” —Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus and Here Comes Everybody

From one of the world’s leading data scientists, a landmark tour of the new science of idea flow, offering revolutionary insights into the mysteries of collective intelligence and social influence.

If the Big Data revolution has a presiding genius, it is MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland. Over years of groundbreaking experiments, he has distilled remarkable discoveries significant enough to become the bedrock of a whole new scientific field: social physics. Humans have more in common with bees than we like to admit: We’re social creatures first and foremost. Our most important habits of action—and most basic notions of common sense—are wired into us through our coordination in social groups. Social physics is about idea flow, the way human social networks spread ideas and transform those ideas into behaviors.

Thanks to the millions of digital bread crumbs people leave behind via smartphones, GPS devices, and the Internet, the amount of new information we have about human activity is truly profound. Until now, sociologists have depended on limited data sets and surveys that tell us how people say they think and behave, rather than what they actually do. As a result, we’ve been stuck with the same stale social structures—classes, markets—and a focus on individual actors, data snapshots, and steady states. Pentland shows that, in fact, humans respond much more powerfully to social incentives that involve rewarding others and strengthening the ties that bind than incentives that involve only their own economic self-interest.

Pentland and his teams have found that they can study patterns of information exchange in a social network without any knowledge of the actual content of the information and predict with stunning accuracy how productive and effective that network is, whether it’s a business or an entire city. We can maximize a group’s collective intelligence to improve performance and use social incentives to create new organizations and guide them through disruptive change in a way that maximizes the good. At every level of interaction, from small groups to large cities, social networks can be tuned to increase exploration and engagement, thus vastly improving idea flow.

Social Physics will change the way we think about how we learn and how our social groups work—and can be made to work better, at every level of society. Pentland leads readers to the edge of the most important revolution in the study of social behavior in a generation, an entirely new way to look at life itself.


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Praise

Social Physics is filled with rich findings about what makes people tick. Using millions of data points measured over a long period of time in real settings, which Pentland calls ‘living laboratories,’ the author has monitored human behavior on an unprecedented scale…Pentland’s research also offers lessons for policymakers and business people. He advances a new way to protect privacy by creating something of a property right for personal information…Social Physics is a fascinating look at a new field by one of its principal geeks.” The Economist

“Many of us have stood above a colony of ants and been astounded at their ability to act and organize as a social system. Humans are, of course, smarter, independent free-thinking individuals. Read this book and think again. With eyesight sharpened by math, modeling, and the familiarity with a new landscape he has in part created, Sandy Pentland and his team are mapping out a new world, crawling with information, that offers some real understanding of who we are and who we could be. Welcome to the age of social physics.” —Peter Gabriel

“Pentland’s insights make human behavior less mysterious, but more amazing. Social Physics will make you see yourself and your world differently.” —Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus and Here Comes Everybody

“Understanding, predicting and influencing human behavior has been the goal of social scientists (and leaders anywhere) since the beginning of time. Pentland’s Social Physics is a major contribution to this field. By using communication tracking analysis and occasionally human sensors along with big data, he and his team are evolving a new discipline with a unique taxonomy and ontology that brings a higher level of quantification and rigor to a challenging and inherently complex field. Like Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds it will spawn further work and research in a rapidly expanding new body of knowledge.” —John Abele, Co-Founder, Boston Scientific

“Read this book and you will look at tomorrow differently. Reality mining is just the first step on an exciting new journey. Social Physics opens up the imagination to what might now be measurable and modifiable. It also hints at what may lie beyond Adam Smith’s invisible hand in helping groups, organizations and societies reach new levels of meaning creation. This is not just social analytics. It also offers pragmatic ways forward.” —John Seely Brown, Former Chief Scientist, Xerox Corporation and director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)

“From his MIT aerie, eagle-eyed Alex Pentland has seen the future. His wise and stimulating book teaches us how ideas spring up, flow, and spread. Applying his lessons, we can act collectively to solve previously intractable social, economic and political problems. We can make organizations more productive. We can even have government achieve its proper purposes, with greater fairness and less cost. As challenges like widening inequality and runaway climate change seem to exceed our ability to design solutions, Pentland’s data-driven, reality-based, yet sunny optimism about tomorrow should be eagerly welcomed by all readers.” —Reed E. Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital

“Alex Pentland lives in the future—and it shows. This book will not only whisk you up to speed on cutting-edge research at the interface of technology, behavioral science, and the social world, but it will also give you a good sense of what could be next. Professor Pentland brilliantly analyzes how new ideas flow and how, with the emergence of the ‘data-driven society,’ they will increasingly influence every aspect of our lives.” —Stephen M. Kosslyn, Former Dean of Social Science, Harvard University; Former Director, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University; Founding Dean, Minerva Schools at KGI

Excerpt

Where do new ideas come from? How do they get put into action? How can we create social structures that are cooperative, productive, and creative? These are perhaps the most critical questions for any society and they are especially important now because of global competition, environmental challenges, and the threat of rot from within.

In the last few years, our lives have been transformed by networks that combine people and computers, allowing much greater participation and much faster change. As the Internet makes our lives increasingly connected, events seem to move faster and faster. We are drowning in information, so much so that we don’t know what items to pay attention to and which to ignore.

As a consequence, our world sometimes seems to be on the edge of spinning out of control, with social media such as Twitter causing stock market crashes and overthrowing governments. So even though digital networks have already revolutionized the nature of our economy, business, government, and politics, we still don’t understand how to manage these new human-machine networks.

Today, virtual crowds can form in minutes and consist of millions of people from all over the world. And with each new day it may be a different set of millions of people contributing and commenting. We are no longer in the era of financial exchanges with physical trading floors and political conventions with smoke-filled back rooms where a small group haggles until it comes to a deal.

To understand our new world, we must extend familiar economic and political ideas to include the effects of these millions of people learning from on another and influencing one another’s opinions. We can no longer think of ourselves as individuals reaching carefully considered decisions; we must include the dynamic social effects that drive economic bubbles, political revolutions, and the Internet economy.

The goal of this book is to develop a social physics that extends economic and political thinking by including not only competitive forces but also exchanges of ideas, information, social pressure, and social status in order to more fully explain human behavior. To accomplish this we will have to explain not only how social interactions affect individual goals and decisions, but, more important, how these social effects produce Adam Smith’s otherwise mysterious “invisible hand.” Only once we understand how social interactions work together with competitive forces can we hope to ensure stability and fairness in our hyperconnected, networked society.