Social Physics: A book review by Bob Morris

Social PhysicsSocial Physics: How Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter
Alex Pentland
Penguin Books (2014)

How to increase our understanding of “the dynamics of human society, and hence our ability to plan for the future”

Alex (“Sandy”) Pentland is among the most influential thought leaders in a new field that is called social physics, “a name coined two centuries ago by Auguste Comte, the creator of sociology. His concept was that certain ideas shaped the development of society in a regular manner.” He and Lieberman offer a new understanding of human behavior and society, one that has immense implications and significance as social media continue to evolve in ways and to an extent Compte could not possibly imagine.

As Pentland explains, “To understand our new, hyperconnected world we must extend familiar economic and political ideas to include the effects of these millions of digital citizens learning from one another and influencing one another’s opinions. We can no longer think of ourselves as only individuals reaching carefully considered opinions; we must include the dynamic social effects that influence our individual decisions and drive economic bubbles, political revolutions, and the Internet economy.”

In Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Matthew D. Lieberman offers his own brilliant examination of the principles of the social brain with a wealth of information and insights, presented with language that non-scientists such as I can understand. His primary purpose is to explain why and how the human brain is wired to think socially. That is, to make connections, to read the minds of others, and to “harmonize” with others in the groups with which we connect.

As he observes, “Just as there are multiple social networks on the Internet such as Facebook and Twitter, each with its own strengths, there are also multiple social networks in our brains, sets of brain regions that work together to promote our social well-being. These networks each have their own strengths, and they have emerged at different points in their evolutionary history moving from vertebrates to mammals to primates to us, Homo sapiens. Additionally, these same evolutionary steps are recapitulated in the same order in childhood.”

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me in the first six chapters, also listed to suggest the scope of Pentland’s coverage:

o Preface: The Origin of the Book (Pages vii-x)
o What Is Social Physics? (4-10)
o Living Lab Data Sets (13-14)
o Language/Nomenclature: “Some Quick Definitions”: (19-21)
o Social Learning (29-31)
o Idea Flow, and, Idea Flow and Decision Making (32-37)
o Exploration (39-42)
o Habits, Preferences, and Curiosity (46-55)
o Habits versus Beliefs (55-58)
o Common Sense (60-61)
o Social Pressure (65-70)
o Digital Engagement (70-75)
o “The Mathematics of Social Influence” (80-84)
o Collective Intelligence: Measuring What You Manage, and, Productivity (92-96)
o Collective Intelligence: Creativity (96-103)
o Shaping Organizations: Engagement (108-112)
o Shaping Organizations: Exploration (112-114)
o Shaping Organizations: Social Intelligence (116-119)

Pentland seems to have an insatiable curiosity to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why insofar as “our new, hyperconnected world” is concerned, then share what he has learned with as many people as possible in his books and articles as well as through his central involvement in undergraduate and graduate programs at MIT as Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and Director of the Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program at MIT where he directs the Human Dynamics research group and leads the Connection Science initiative. In Social Physics, when explaining how social networks can help to make us smarter, he focuses on subjects such as these:

o How to use data to understand how human societies evolve
o How to locate good ideas and make good (better) decisions
o How all of us can work together more productively and more enjoyably
o How patterns of interaction translate into collective intelligence
o How to shape organizations and social intelligence through visualization of interactive patterns
o How social incentives can be used to create instant organizations and guide them through disruptive change
Note: This material (Pages 120-130), all by itself, is worth far more than the cost of the hardbound edition of this book.
o How mobile sensing can enable cities to become more healthy, safe, and efficient
o How social physics and big data are revolutionizing our understanding of cities and development
o What a data-rich future may look like
o How social physics might help us design, a human-centric, data-rich society

Long ago, Thomas Edison suggested that “vision without execution is hallucination.” Pentland does indeed have a compelling vision of what can be accomplished in “our new, hyperconnected world” but, being a diehard pragmatist with what Ernest Hemingway once characterized as a “built-in, shock-proof crap detector,” he full recognizes the challenges to be faced in months and years to come.

Hence the importance of social physics that “helps us to understand how ideas flow from person to person through the mechanism of social learning and how this flow of ideas ends up shaping the norms, productivity, and creative output of our companies, cities, and societies. It enables us to predict the productivity of small groups, of departments within companies, and even of entire cities. It also helps us tune communication networks so that we can reliably make better decisions and become more productive.”

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the abundance of information, insights, and counsel that Alex (“Sandy”) Pentland provides but I hope that I have at least indicated why I think so highly of his book. I wholly agree with him that “the propagation of human action habits by means of social learning can be accurately modeled from easily observable behavior using heterogeneous, dynamic, stochastic networks. This capability is transformative for increasing our understanding of the dynamics of human society, and hence our ability to plan for the future.”

Social Physics is a brilliant achievement. Bravo!

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