The engine that drives social physics is big data: the newly ubiquitous digital data now available about all aspects of human life. Social physics functions by analyzing patterns of human experience and idea exchange within the digital bread crumbs we all leave behind us as we move through the world—call records, credit card transactions, and GPS location fixes, among others. These data tell the story of everyday life by recording what each of us has chosen to do. And this is very different from what is put on Facebook; postings on Facebook are what people choose to tell each other, edited according to the standards of the day. Who we actually are is more accurately determined by where we spend our time and which things we buy, not just by what we say we do.

The process of analyzing the patterns within these digital bread crumbs is called reality mining, and through it we can tell an enormous amount about who individuals are. My students and I have found that we can use it to tell if people are likely to get diabetes or whether someone is the sort of person who will pay back loans. And by analyzing these patterns across many people, we are discovering that we can begin to explain many things—crashes, revolutions, bubbles—that previously appeared to be random “acts of God.” For this reason the magazine MIT Technology Review named our development of reality mining as one of the ten technologies that will change the world.

The scientific method used in social physics is different from that used in most social sciences, because it principally relies on “living laboratories.” What is a living lab? Let us imagine the ability to place an imaging chamber around an entire community and then to record and display every facet and dimension of behavior, communication, and social interaction among its members. Now think about doing this for up to several years while the members of the community go about their everyday lives. That is a living lab.

During the past decade, my students and I have developed the ability to build and deploy such living labs, measuring entire social organisms—groups, companies, and whole communities—on a second-by-second basis for up to years at a time. The method is simple: Measurements are made by collecting digital bread crumbs from the sensors from cell phones, postings on social media, purchases with credit cards, and more.

To accomplish this I have developed legal and software tools to protect the rights and privacy of the people in these labs to insure that they are fully informed about what is happening to their data and that they maintain the right to opt out at any time. As I will explain, the solutions I have developed have been important in helping to improve the privacy protections of citizens around the world.

All of those billions of telephone call records, credit card transactions, and GPS location fixes have provided scientists with a new lens that lets us examine society in fine-grained detail.10 Just as when Dutch lens makers created the first practical lenses and thus enabled researchers to build the first microscopes and telescopes, my research lab and I have created tools that collect all the digital bread crumbs from an entire community, enabling us to build some of the first practical “socioscopes.” These new tools give a view of life in all its complexity—and are the future of social science. Just as the microscope and telescope revolutionized the study of biology and astronomy, socioscopes in living labs will revolutionize the study of human behavior.

Social Physics: How Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter