I started reading Alex “Sandy” Pentland’s book, Social Physics. Several things interest me about this book. I’m very interested in how society behaves in today’s world where we are increasingly connected to more people by weak social ties. Also interesting is that advances in data collection and analysis are bound to reach a point where we can continuously monitor and analyze people’s behavior. Who will have this knowledge? How will they use it? What will this world look like? Lastly, I’m interested on how good ideas spread and how that can help us design better organizations and institutions.
Alex Pentland thinks it is possible to create a mathematical explanation about why society behaves the way it does. He calls this discipline, social physics.
“Social physics is a quantitative social science that describes reliable, mathematical connections between information and idea flow on the one hand and people’s behavior on the other. Social physics helps us 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. “
The goal of applying this science to society is to shape outcomes. Pentland believes we can create systems that build a society “better at avoiding market crashes, ethnic and religious violence, political stalemates, widespread corruption, and dangerous concentration of power.”
All of this would sound great, if it didn’t sound kind of scary. There are a lot of concerns about privacy, which Pentland addresses, and which I’m sure he’ll talk more about in the coming chapters. However, even if he is able to get around the privacy issues, the ability to affect how society behaves would give whoever has the ability to do so great power. This is perhaps a little paranoid on my part, but I don’t think misusing the ability to “fix” society, as he puts it, is out of the question. Pentland does write about it:
“This vision of a data-driven society implicitly assumes the data will not be abused. The ability to see the details of the market, political revolutions, and to be able to predict and control them is a case of Promethean fire—it could be used for good or for ill.”
My second concern is best summarized by Nicholas Carr in his article in “The Limits of Social Engineering”.
“Pentland may be right that our behavior is determined largely by social norms and the influences of our peers, but what he fails to see is that those norms and influences are themselves shaped by history, politics, and economics, not to mention power and prejudice. People don’t have complete freedom in choosing their peer groups. Their choices are constrained by where they live, where they come from, how much money they have, and what they look like. A statistical model of society that ignores issues of class, that takes patterns of influence as givens rather than as historical contingencies, will tend to perpetuate existing social structures and dynamics. It will encourage us to optimize the status quo rather than challenge it.” (h/t to Cathy O’Neil for linking to this piece).
The case studies in the book so far take place in groups where this might not be a huge issue like eToro, an online trading and investment network. Carr’s (and my) concern may not be a huge issue in these scenarios especially because Pentland is measuring very specific metrics like return on investments. However I do believe there is real danger in applying this sort of analyses in places like, say Ferguson, MO. It will be interesting to read the different case studies and to try and identify places where this concern might arise.
It would be very unfair of me to end this without writing about the actual focus of the book (although I’m already a little nauseous fro writing this on the train). The book will focus on the two most important concepts of social physics: idea flow within social networks and social learning, that is, how we take these new ideas and turn them into habit and how learning can be accelerated and shaped by social pressure.
I like to believe that there are better systems of collaboration and cooperation that can make organizations more effective, communities more resilient, and authorities more accountable. Elinor Ostrom developed her work on governing the commons by studying how communities behaved around issues like irrigation and water management. Similarly, I do think Pentland’s insights on idea flow and social learning can help us understand how to design better organizations, communities, and institutions.