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20150116 Pentland,Alex-Social Physics



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The main idea of this book is to approach human society as physicists approach natural phenomenon by collecting huge amount of data and applying statistical analytical tools to find out explanatory rules for this phenomenon. The most interesting thing about this is the new method to collect data about human behavior using GPS and communication tool to pick up tons of information about who communicate with who, when, where, and for how long.


1.FROM IDEAS TO ACTIONS: Using Big Data to Understand How Human Societies Evolve: What Is Social Physics? A Practical Science; Big Data; A Rich Social Science; Plan for the Book; Data-Driven Societies: Promethean Fire; SPECIAL TOPIC: LANGUAGE

This is a description of idea of this book: use of quantitative methods of big data to discover mathematical connections between ideas flow and human action. The point is made that typical method of social science: laboratory experiment and polls are not adequate for purpose of developing understanding of dynamics of human society. The new method would be based on analysis of trillions of transactions between individuals that are captured by multiple automatic data collection devices from credit card readers to cameras everywhere.

PART I: Social Physics

2. EXPLORATION: How can We Find Good Ideas and Make Good Decisions? Social Learning; Idea Flow; Idea Flow and Decision Making; Tuning Networks; Exploration

This is about exploration as the best way to find good ideas and make good decisions. Example is used of transactions analysis of trading system eToro where trader can either make his own decisions or jus copy other traders. The resulting graph provided showing that the best strategy is in the middle, while isolated traders and echo chamber traders has lower returns then traders in the range of moderate idea flow. After that Bell Stars study reviewed that demonstrated star performers consistently engage links to experts in order to collect various ideas and view points. The key findings: Social Learning is critical; Diversity is important; Contrarians are important.

3.IDEA FLOW: The Building Blocks of Collective Intelligence; Habits, Preferences, and Curiosity; Habits versus Beliefs; Collectively Rational, Not Individually Rational; Common Sense

Two studies are conducted to explore process of ideas flow: Social Evolution and Friends and Family collecting 2 million hours of interactions between people. It identified key components: habits, preferences, and curiosity. The analogy provided: We all sail in the stream of ideas provided by people around and it forms our habits and preferences. This linked to ideas of fast and slow thinking with adoption of habits and preferences going via slow thinking process and then becoming foundation for fast thinking and common sense. Consequently, as rule, individual thinking is based on collective rationality, but is not rational per se. From here author brings common sense as in old English use of “kith” as group of people with common believes and thinking.

 4.ENGAGEMENT: How Can We All Work Together? Social Pressure; Digital Engagement; Subjugation and Conflict; Rules of Engagement; Next Steps; SPECIAL TOPIC: THE MATHEMATICS OF SOCIAL INFLUENCE

This chapter is about working in the group and achieving cohesion. Unsurprisingly it is all about social pressure and top performers making other individuals work harder. It also states that that synchronization of idea flows in-group is critical. After discussing for a while subjugation and conflict mainly between groups, author comes up with rules of engagement that allow achieving behavior changes: Interaction, cooperation, and trust building.

 PART II: Idea Machines

5.COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE: How Patterns of Interaction Translate into Collective Intelligence; Measuring What You Manage; Productivity. Creativity. Improving Idea Flow

While author uses trivial notion of collective intelligence, he nevertheless comes up with interesting finding that such intelligence works best when interactions within group occur on more or less equal basis. The critical factor is diversity of ideas generated and freedom in critic of ideas. Application of these ideas in modifying business processes also provided.

6.SHAPING ORGANIZATIONS: Social Intelligence Through Visualization of Interaction Patterns; Engagement; Exploration; Diversity. Social Intelligence

This short chapter is about tools that allow visualization of interaction using sociometric badges and simple software to generate graphs from communication logs.

7.ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE: Social Network Incentives Can Be Used to Create Instant Organizations and Guide Them Through Disruptive Change; Instant Organizations; Organizations in Stress; Trust; Next Steps; SPECIAL TOPIC: SOCIAL SIGNALS

This is about instant organization created to achieve a specific goal. The example provided for balloon search when organization was instantly created by profit sharing between individuals who spontaneously self-organized into network necessary to complete the task. The key was rewarding not only people who actually completed task, but also people who expanded network because in this specific case success was dependent on size of network. Another little side story is measuring trust between based on frequencies of communications. It seems worked pretty well.

 PART III: Data-Driven Cities

8.SENSING CITIES: How Mobile Sensing Is Creating a Nervous System for Cities, Enabling Them to Become More Healthy, Safe, and Efficient; Behavior Demographics; Transportation; Health and Disease; Social Network Interventions; From a Digital Nervous System to a Data-Driven Society

This is about exploring new opportunities provided by technology to analyze patterns of behavior in contemporary cities. An example provided of GPS data analysis of cell phones movement to identify concentration of people in different localities during work days and weekends. It showed that population contains different “tribes” with different patterns of behavior. All this can help to predict consumer behavior, transportation needs, disease expansion, and similar things. The key idea is that we should move into transforming cities into data driven dynamic organisms.

 9.CITY SCIENCE: How Social Physics and Big Data Are Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Cities and Development; The Social Physics of Cities; Social Ties in Cities; Exploring the City. Idea Flow in Cities; Designing Better Cities; Data-Driven Cities; Next Steps; SPECIAL TOPIC: DIGITAL NETWORKS VERSUS FACE-TO-FACE

This is discussion of idea that concentration of people within face-to face distances in cities facilitates interactions and increases ideas flow. Author even claims ability to predict GDP and creativity of places based on such data. As prove author provides graph that represents growth of GDP vs. Rate of Idea flow growth.

 PART IV: Data-Driven Society

10.DATA-DRIVEN SOCIETIES: What Will a Data-Driven Future Look Like? The New Deal on Data; Enforcement; The Wild, Wild Web; Data-Driven Systems: Challenges; Social Physics versus Free Will and Human Dignity

This is an attempt to assess future data-driven society. Author believes it should be based on data ownership laws such as:

You have the right to possess data about you

You have the right to full control over the use of your data

You have the right to dispose of or distribute your data

Author understands that enforcement would be a problem, but he believes that it could be solved using trust networks. Finally author discusses social physics versus Free will and Human Dignity. His approach is that since social physics based on statistical regularities and does not force anything on anybody, there is no conflict between those notions.

 11.DESIGN FOR HARMONY: How Social Physics Can Help Us Design a Human-Centric Society; Natural Law: Exchanges, Not Markets; Design for a Networked Society; Data for Development: D4D; Summary: Promethean Fire

The final chapter dedicated to attempt to convince reader that social physics is the way to improve society and make it more human centric. Author believes that future is exchange networks that are different from market because it based on trust and personalized services.


I found this book quite interesting especially it experimental data. The ideas of harmonizing society based on data have a lot less value due to the simple fact that humans are not particles, but rather complex, self-directing, and, most importantly, constantly changing creatures so all and any rules developed based on big data bound to be outdated just about time when they are clearly formulated. I also find it a bit funny how deep hate and rejection of market is inculcated into psyche of contemporary intellectuals limiting their ability to understand world around them. The best example is the last chapter when exchange treated as something different from the market. Historically and linguistically market means just a place where exchange occur. In contemporary world it is practically everywhere because humans have a lot more freedom than they used to have. That’s why people are routinely talking about non-monetary markets such as marriage market.

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