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Social Physics

How Good Ideas Spread: The Lessons from a New Science

By Alex Pentland
15-minute read
Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread: The Lessons from a New Science by Alex Pentland

Social Physics offers a crash course in the new self-declared field of science. It asks questions about how we can best use the treasure troves of data available to companies and researchers today to better understand human interaction and social organization, and hopefully create a better society.

  • Anyone interested in social organization
  • Anyone who feels uneasy about sharing their personal data
  • Anyone who ever heard of Social Physics and wants to understand what it means

Alex Pentland is director of the MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, and is a founding member of numerous start-ups, institutes and labs, including MIT’s Media laboratory. He has published many articles in various scientific magazines and has published one other book, Honest Signals.

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Social Physics

How Good Ideas Spread: The Lessons from a New Science

By Alex Pentland
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Contains 9 key ideas
Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread: The Lessons from a New Science by Alex Pentland
Synopsis

Social Physics offers a crash course in the new self-declared field of science. It asks questions about how we can best use the treasure troves of data available to companies and researchers today to better understand human interaction and social organization, and hopefully create a better society.

Key idea 1 of 9

Social physics uses the huge amount of data available in our modern world to analyze human behavior.

We’re all familiar with the concept of “physics” and “social science.” But have you ever heard of social physics?

Social physics is an approach to understanding human behavior – one that aims to find out what we’re really doing, and not what we think we are doing.

Social physics takes one huge idea from traditional physics, namely the idea that the flow of energy translates into changes in motion. Think of how, if the wind blows hard enough, it can pluck an apple  from a tree, for example.

We can apply this concept to human behavior as well, by analyzing how the flow of ideas and information – much like energy – translates into changes in human behavior.

Unlike traditional approaches to understanding human society, however, social physics doesn’t use abstract models of human behavior. Instead, it uses living labs.

Instead of using one-time surveys and lab experiments that analyze a particular element of behavior, social physics uses data from every facet of our behavior over a much longer period of time, often spanning years.

Social physics makes good use of big data, i.e., a huge collection of information, which can then be analyzed for patterns. Some of this data takes the form of “digital bread crumbs.” Our credit cards, for example, show where we buy goods, cell phone data shows where we are and even who we’re talking to.

Another tool in social physics’ arsenal is the sociometric badge, devices worn around the neck that capture data about our body language during interactions.

In analyzing this huge collection of data, patterns emerge about an individual’s or a community's life – a process known as “reality mining.” And behind these patterns lies the truth about human behavior.

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