An Interview with Alex “Sandy” Pentland about “Social Physics”

For good or ill, big data and networks have taken over our lives and, unfortunately, they too often run amok. From the Arab Spring, mediated on Twitter and Facebook, to the NSA spying scandal, to the 2008 financial crash, big data and networks are causing wrenching changes but very rarely can we piece together why, how, or what do to about the problem.

Alex “Sandy” Pentland has created a new data science that not only describes how networks of people behave but also creates actionable intelligence from that understanding. Called “Social Physics,” it encapsulates social, analytical, computer, and managerial sciences into a synthesis that allows us to build more resilient and creative societies while at the same time providing greater protection for personal privacy and resistance to cyber attack. Pentland’s new book, SOCIAL PHYSICS: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science, is a landmark tour of this new science, offering revolutionary insights into the mysteries of collective intelligence and social influence.

Social Physics has already been used to improve health, eliminate gridlock, conserve energy, stabilize financial markets and create the possibility of greater social equality. It has also inspired the New Deal on Data, which offers greatly increased personal privacy and digital safety, potentially allowing us to unlock the wisdom of crowds in ways that can foster a government that really works. The people who understand the lessons of this new discipline will own the next 50 years of innovation.

What is social physics?
Social physics is a new, quantitative science of human society that can accurately predict patterns of human behavior and influence those patterns. Social physics helps us understand how ideas flow from person to person through the mechanism of social learning and ends up shaping the norms, productivity, and creative output of our companies, cities, and societies. Importantly, social physics also tells us how to deal with the privacy concerns raised by big data: by giving individuals more control over data that is about them.

Just as the goal of traditional physics is to understand how the flow of energy translates into changes in motion, social physics seeks to understand how the flow of ideas and information translates into changes in behavior. Traditional social sciences—economics, management, and political science—have always been data-poor and as a consequence more of an art than a science. Social physics, through its use of big data, helps us to better deal with problems such as economic bubbles, organizational momentum, and political polarization, because these problems originate in the social networks that traditional social sciences mostly ignore. It enables us to predict the productivity of small groups, of departments within companies, and even entire cities. It also helps us tune communication networks so that we can reliably make better decisions and become more productive.

Does social physics lead to a “Big Brother” society?
Exactly the opposite. Social physics gives us a real, practical alternative to a Big Brother society. It shows us that by giving people greater control of data that are collected about them and giving greater protection to data sharing, we can build a more productive and creative world. At the World Economic Forum I have worked to create a `New Deal on Data’ that would give individuals control of data about them, and am now seeing this New Deal being endorsed by senior regulators in the US, EU, and elsewhere. At MIT we have used the New Deal ideas to build open source software called a Trust network that allows individuals to protect their privacy while at the same time increasing the flow of ideas and information, and are testing the software at several places around the world.

Explain the “New Deal on Data.”

The New Deal on Data is to give individuals ownership rights in data that is about them. Perhaps surprisingly, most big corporations and government regulators are willing to support this New Deal, because it leads to more trustworthy relationships and greater information sharing. From a practical point of view, the way you give people more control over their data is by use of Trust networks, a technology long used by banks and hospitals for sensitive data, and which my MIT group is now making available to everyday people.

You are using living labs to test the New Deal on Data and social physics more generally. Can you give an example of a living lab project and what you’ve learned from it?
An example is the living lab in Trento, Italy where young families are using Trust networks technology to test how the New Deal on Data to enhances idea sharing and improve their lives. One of the lessons from this living lab is that by using Trust network technology to implement the New Deal on Data, people are safer from spying and cyber attack and that this leads to greater sharing.

Why do economics and economic predictions no longer seem to work when devising and implementing policy? How can social physics help fix this problem?
Economics thinks of everyone as an individual, whereas social physics recognizes our social ties. This gives social physics a better way to detect and deal with financial bubbles and inefficient markets, and has produced a technology that is already being commercially applied worldwide to `tune’ financial trading exchanges and prevent catastrophic losses.

How is this going to help fix government? How about improving civil society?
Social physics lays bare the roots of political polarization and gridlock, and offers new methods of addressing these problems based on social networks rather than individual incentives. For instance, by focusing on social connections rather than individuals we have been able to cause dramatic changes in community behaviors ranging from improving their physical fitness to conserving energy.

Can you really change organizations and even entire cities to have greater creative output? How?
Social physics shows that the root cause of innovation and creative output is idea flow: harvesting new ideas from outside your organization or neighborhood, and then discussing and experimenting with promising ideas within your circle of friends. Making it easier to explore for new ideas, and safer to share and discuss promising ideas, raises the rate of innovation and creative output.

In your book, you say that social physics promises to revolutionize management. How so?
Social physics tells us that it is the patterns of communication that most determine productivity and creative output. By changing these patterns—to make sure everyone is in the loop, or that there is sufficient communication between different groups—I have been able to transform organizations ranging from call centers, to research departments, to multi-million person social networks. Both Harvard Business Review and the international Academy of Management have given this social physics approach their highest awards.

Beyond corporations, cities, and government, how can social physics affect an individual’s daily life?
By identifying the true source of innovation as idea flow between people, social physics provides guidance for building a more productive and creative life while at the same time protecting your privacy and insulating you from the fads and panics of our increasingly hyper-connected, big data world. The key is to promote more idea flow within trusted relationships, and avoid dealing with anonymous crowds and unrestricted markets.
What is the difference between “digital breadcrumbs” like cellphone and credit card usage and the behavioral data that is available through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter?

What you put on Facebook and Twitter is your public face, the things you want people to see. What your digital breadcrumbs show is what you actually do: often this is very different than your public face.As a consequence digital breadcrumbs are both more useful in understanding health and financial behavior, and more dangerous in terms of privacy.