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Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science [Hardcover]

Alex Pentland
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 30, 2014 1594205655 978-1594205651
From one of the world’s leading data scientists, a landmark tour of the new science of idea flow, offering revolutionary insights into the mysteries of collective intelligence and social influence

If the Big Data revolution has a presiding genius, it is MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland. Over years of groundbreaking experiments, he has distilled remarkable discoveries significant enough to become the bedrock of a whole new scientific field: social physics. Humans have more in common with bees than we like to admit: We’re social creatures first and foremost. Our most important habits of action—and most basic notions of common sense—are wired into us through our coordination in social groups. Social physics is about idea flow, the way human social networks spread ideas and transform those ideas into behaviors.

Thanks to the millions of digital bread crumbs people leave behind via smartphones, GPS devices, and the Internet, the amount of new information we have about human activity is truly profound. Until now, sociologists have depended on limited data sets and surveys that tell us how people say they think and behave, rather than what they actually do. As a result, we’ve been stuck with the same stale social structures—classes, markets—and a focus on individual actors, data snapshots, and steady states. Pentland shows that, in fact, humans respond much more powerfully to social incentives that involve rewarding others and strengthening the ties that bind than incentives that involve only their own economic self-interest.

Pentland and his teams have found that they can study patterns of information exchange in a social network without any knowledge of the actual content of the information and predict with stunning accuracy how productive and effective that network is, whether it’s a business or an entire city. We can maximize a group’s collective intelligence to improve performance and use social incentives to create new organizations and guide them through disruptive change in a way that maximizes the good. At every level of interaction, from small groups to large cities, social networks can be tuned to increase exploration and engagement, thus vastly improving idea flow. 

Social Physics will change the way we think about how we learn and how our social groups work—and can be made to work better, at every level of society. Pentland leads readers to the edge of the most important revolution in the study of social behavior in a generation, an entirely new way to look at life itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Review

The Economist:
Social Physics is filled with rich findings about what makes people tick. Using millions of data points measured over a long period of time in real settings, which Pentland calls ‘living laboratories,’ the author has monitored human behavior on an unprecedented scale…Pentland’s research also offers lessons for policymakers and business people. He advances a new way to protect privacy by creating something of a property right for personal information…Social Physics is a fascinating look at a new field by one of its principal geeks.”

John Abele, Co-Founder, Boston Scientific:
“Understanding, predicting and influencing human behavior has been the goal of social scientists (and leaders anywhere) since the beginning of time. Pentland’s Social Physics is a major contribution to this field. By using communication tracking analysis and occasionally human sensors along with big data, he and his team are evolving a new discipline with a unique taxonomy and ontology that brings a higher level of quantification and rigor to a challenging and inherently complex field. Like Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds it will spawn further work and research in a rapidly expanding new body of knowledge.”

John Seely Brown, Former Chief Scientist, Xerox Corporation and director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC):
“Read this book and you will look at tomorrow differently. Reality mining is just the first step on an exciting new journey. Social Physics opens up the imagination to what might now be measurable and modifiable. It also hints at what may lie beyond Adam Smith’s invisible hand in helping groups, organizations and societies reach new levels of meaning creation. This is not just social analytics. It also offers pragmatic ways forward.”

Reed E. Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital:
“From his MIT aerie, eagle-eyed Alex Pentland has seen the future. His wise and stimulating book teaches us how ideas spring up, flow, and spread. Applying his lessons, we can act collectively to solve previously intractable social, economic and political problems. We can make organizations more productive. We can even have government achieve its proper purposes, with greater fairness and less cost. As challenges like widening inequality and runaway climate change seem to exceed our ability to design solutions, Pentland’s data-driven, reality-based, yet sunny optimism about tomorrow should be eagerly welcomed by all readers.”

Stephen M. Kosslyn, Former Dean of Social Science, Harvard University; Former Director, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University; Founding Dean, Minerva Schools at KGI:
“Sandy Pentland lives in the future—and it shows. This book will not only whisk you up to speed on cutting-edge research at the interface of technology, behavioral science, and the social world, but it will also give you a good sense of what could be next. Professor Pentland brilliantly analyzes how new ideas flow and how, with the emergence of the ‘data-driven society,’ they will increasingly influence every aspect of our lives.”

About the Author

Alex "Sandy" Pentland directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program and co-leads the World Economic Forum Big Data and Personal Data initiatives. He helped create and direct MIT’s Media Laboratory, the Media Lab Asia laboratories at the Indian Institutes of Technology, and Strong Hospital’s Center for Future Health. His research group and entrepreneurship program have spun off more than thirty companies to date. In 2012 Forbes named Pentland one of the seven most powerful data scientists in the world. His research has been featured in Nature, Science, and Harvard Business Review.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (January 30, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594205655
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594205651
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,549 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
47 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There is not much interesting social theory here, and the massive use of data is deployed for rather mundane ends. Of course idea-based enterprises should benefit from social science research. But the results are of limited interest beyond this use.

I was drawn to this book because I believe that better social theory demands better and more varied data for testing. But this book presents no social theory and tests nothing. It just is creative data mining. Boring to me.

I was continually assaulted by the author's self-promotion. This book is not for social scientists, but rather for businesses that might hire the author and his coworkers. Boring to me.
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good material but not really new January 7, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I was intrigued by the term "social physics," but ultimately agree with other reviewers: it's not clear why physics offers the best metaphor for explaining social interactions. I would agree with that reviewer: if you're going to use a metaphor, go with epidemiology.

But then the most frustrating part of the book is that there's no need for a new name. The authors address the points raised by other psychologists who study social influence. We are influenced by contact with our peers.

One of the more original concepts is the notion that we're influenced by observing behaviors of others, not just being with them. And being able to observe behavior is more important than the closeness we have to those being observed. That makes sense. As Pentland says, if we see lots of people eating donuts, it's easy to rationalize our own choices of bad food.

For the most part, the book just doesn't offer anything radically new. I chose 4 stars because the authors do introduce some new research techniques. Most likely the regular, non-ARC edition will be more helpful because readers will have access to charts and diagrams.

It would have been good to integrate the math into the main text and perhaps include some explanations for people who don't deal with equations every day. That step would make a contribution to differentiate the book from others on related topics.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book on memes December 16, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I'm very hesitant to endorse the title "social physics" as it seems to be nothing of the sort, but rather some initial heuristics for tracking meme spread and mutation. Epidemiology rather than physics is how I'm thinking about it. But nevermind, Alex Pentland is at MIT and did the work so he can coin the term.

There are a couple of short digression in which the mathematics is shown, but otherwise this is more of a business-friendly book than a technical book. Examples are of companies founded by Prof. Pentland or corporate research projects from his students. A quite readable book overall, and even if this isn't fully a "new science" (which seems to pop up in book titles fairly often...) then it's at least a way in which big data can be used to track ideas and their trends.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too much self centric March 1, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It appears a biographical journey of the author at MIT disguised in the apron of social physics, that hides the message of the narrative.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Endless self promotion ruins the book February 16, 2014
Format:Hardcover
Why did the author write this book? Was it to inform the public about the recent advances in sociology, made possible by our ability to constantly monitor people's behavior and use that "big data" to model social interaction in novel ways? Was the author specifically interested in informing the public about his research, because he wants us to share his excitement? Or is this book a simple self-serving attempt at self-promotion? This book appears to be mostly self-promotion, with some interesting research sprinkled throughout.

The book reads like a plea for a nobel prize, or maybe to drum up some venture capital support. Each chapter focuses on a specific research area of the author. In some cases, the author will also mention related research from other scientists. He then gives an example of how he was able to predict something new using his approach. That is OK, however it would be nice to learn about other research not originating from the author's lab. But in every case, the author then says something along the lines of, "This work was published in the Nature journal, Nature Communications", or something along those lines. This is off-putting and unnecessary - it just sounds like boasting. An example of the predictive power is more interesting to read than where it was published, and highlighting that is is a Nature-branded-journal just sounds shallow. He then follows it up with, my graduate student and I founded a company based on this work called "Millenia Informatics", or something along those lines. Uck. Neither of these last two points would be so off-putting if he ever made similar comments about other peoples successes, but he does not.

I was very annoyed by this format, and it made it difficult for me to engage with the book. However, the examples of how "big data" will change society for the better were mostly interesting, albeit mostly relegated to the author's own research.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars good idea poor execution April 23, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The ideas behind this book seem good, but the author does not provide much hard evidence to back them up. Most evidence comes in the form of pointing out what esteemed journal published the data. The small area where I am knowledgeable contained inaccurate information. The book seems to be a paean to his isolated genius, and an advertisement for his many companies. I would have liked to see more use of the group wisdom that the book celebrates, and more real data.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars while the findings are certainly useful, they're not as revolutionary...
It's not a "new science." It's just social science with a larger data-set, thanks to some new tools. Read more
Published 19 hours ago by JC in LA
5.0 out of 5 stars Can philosophy/humanities go to the museum?
Although I need more time and input from critics to develop my opinion, this is clearly a stunning book. Read more
Published 4 days ago by j.f.p. jongbloed
5.0 out of 5 stars Revolution
What a new revolution possibility to change the mind sets to a livable new world- heaven
Published 8 days ago by sinan erer
5.0 out of 5 stars An Academic View
Alex "Sandy" Pentland is an academic star, and his work at MIT's Media Lab produces many grand things. Read more
Published 11 days ago by Dr. R. D. B. Laime
3.0 out of 5 stars Good introduction to the discipline, but...
The author proposed a new discipline of social physics as a quantitative social science that describes reliable mathematical connections between information/idea and people’s... Read more
Published 11 days ago by Jysoo Lee
5.0 out of 5 stars Read and share
It is important that the content of this book is shared. It has been too long coming - the switch to focusing on the interconnection of people and content and not just each by... Read more
Published 22 days ago by Adam Hirschberg
4.0 out of 5 stars great for those interested in group thinking influence societies
I recommend it to students and professionals interested in how to gather and interpret big data and those who study the flow of ideas in large groups. Read more
Published 28 days ago by Armando López Fernández
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting stuff, but not scholarly
I liked the concepts and ideas presented. This is an exciting field. Unfortunately, this book doesn't provide the detail necessary for those of us wanting to become practitioners... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Lineman
5.0 out of 5 stars BIG Daddy of BIG Data
Sandy Pentland is the BIG daddy of BIG data! Using new sophisticated technology (sociometers) that track primal interactions between people and their networks, Pentland and his... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Steve Gladis
5.0 out of 5 stars Great summary into social physics
Subject was addressed well in this volume, broad enough to appeal to a broad range audience but in parts and in appendices specific enough for those looking for more details. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Clayton Heilman
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