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


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 ...

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

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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 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

From Barnes & Noble

A book on the Big Data Revolution could hardly be timelier. Whether you are a NSA researcher, a student googling for homework answers, or a warehouse manager trying to make sense of traffic patterns, searching for connections in an ocean of data is what we do. Data scientist Alex Pentland notes that we humans now display ourselves more revealingly by our online behavior than by the squibs we leave on Facebook. His Social Physics shows how we can use this information in ways that benefit us all in dealing with situations ranging from creating social incentives to coping with the problems associated with climate change. Bright ideas from M.I.T.'s "Big Data guy."

Publishers Weekly
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.)
Kirkus Reviews
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 Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/30/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 98,268
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Alex "Sandy" Pentland directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program and co-leads the World Economic Forum Big Data and Personal Data initiatives. He helped create and direct MIT’s Media Laboratory, the Media Lab Asia laboratories at the Indian Institutes of Technology, and Strong Hospital’s Center for Future Health. His research group and entrepreneurship program have spun off more than thirty companies to date. In 2012 Forbes named Pentland one of the seven most powerful data scientists in the world. His research has been featured in Nature, Science, and Harvard Business Review.
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