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

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

by Alex Pentland
     
 

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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 hasSee more details below

Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
11/25/2013
Auguste Comte’s dream of creating a “social physics” is given a 21st-century revival in Pentland’s (Honest Signals) latest. Drawing on research from the last decade, Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, argues that his mathematical social science can predict and shape the behavior of large groups, chiefly through quantifying “idea flow”—the way new ideas spread within and between social groups. This social-network-based view of the world is acquired through research on a grand scale, monitoring the behavior of whole neighborhoods or towns, thus allowing meaningful results to be drawn from gargantuan sample sizes. Information so acquired could, Pentland argues, allow for a “data-driven society,” fully responsive to the undulating needs of large groups of people. There is an enchantingly wonky appeal to Pentland’s ideas, despite the book’s limpid writing and poor analysis. His overarching goal—to get us all to think beyond “markets” and “classes” and adopt a community-centric view of society—deserves attention, along with his privacy and data-ownership plan. However, Pentland often presents his big ideas without specifics, and he devotes little attention to the way social inequality impacts his theory of idea flow. Agent: Max Brockman, Brockman Inc. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
The Economist:
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.”

John Abele, Co-Founder, Boston Scientific:
“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 Seely Brown, Former Chief Scientist, Xerox Corporation and director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC):
“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.”

Reed E. Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital:
“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.”

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:
“Sandy 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.”

Kirkus Reviews
2013-11-26
Pentland (Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World, 2008, etc.)--the director of MIT's Human Dynamics Laboratory who was named "one of the seven most powerful data scientists in the world"--attempts to justify large-scale monitoring of individual behavior. The author claims that collecting large amounts of personal data reveals how social networks can be engineered to operate most effectively in "our new hyperconnected world." Hidden patterns of behavior become clear by assembling and analyzing massive amounts of data. He and his associates have pioneered the development of digital monitoring devices that record face-to-face and online social networking. His first venture into what he calls "reality mining" began 15 years ago, with the "world's first cyborg collective in which everyone lived and worked with wirelessly connected computers on their bodies and computer displays in their glasses." Currently, the author is studying how "the flow of ideas and information, [translates] into changes in behavior" in a corporate setting. "Measurements are made by collecting digital bread crumbs such as the sensors from cell phones, postings on social media, purchases with credit cards, and more." Volunteers from corporations participating in the program wear "a sociometric [identity] badge" and carry smartphones that closely monitor their behaviors--e.g., the times and locations of their social interactions, phone calls and emails, as well as the number, times and places of job-related interactions. By analyzing this data and observing the social dynamic in small-group meetings, Pentland demonstrates how social networking can be used to boost the collective intelligence of a group open to testing new ideas, if it is not suppressed by a hierarchical corporate structure. Though the author recognizes the threat to privacy implicit in such monitoring when it is not voluntary, "the potential rewards of…a data-driven society," he writes, "are worth the effort and the risk." A fascinating view of the future of social networks that offers intriguing possibilities but also the potential of a dystopia greater than that portrayed by George Orwell in 1984.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594205651
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/30/2014
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
440,510
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

John Seely Brown
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 the Publisher

John Abele, Co-Founder, Boston Scientific:
“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 Seely Brown, Former Chief Scientist, Xerox Corporation and director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC):
“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.”

Reed E. Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital:
“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.”

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:
“Sandy 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.”

John Abele
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
Stephen M. Kosslyn
Sandy 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, Dean, Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute

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