SOCIAL PHYSICS by Alex Pentland


How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science
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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.

Pub Date: Feb. 3rd, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-59420-565-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Penguin Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2013


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