Social Physics: A Review

While browsing the stacks of new arrivals at the public library one title caught my eye. Social Physics (Alex Pentland) is an easy to read exploration of the impact that Big Data can have on our decision making processes. Leaning more towards pop science than a heavier academic tome it nonetheless manages to present a convincing argument for why we should take control of our personal information.

The first thing you may be wondering is 'what is social physics'? Pentland defines it as

a quantitive social science that describes reliable, mathematical connections between information and idea flow on the one hand and people’s behavior on the other

My first reaction on reading this was to think of Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Fortunately he manages to dig a little deeper than just a grand notion of 'psychohistory'. The books opens with an examination of how people engage in both physical and digital spaces. This chapter alone would be useful to anyone who deals with interaction.

Networks, Relationships, and Cities

A remarkable segment comes towards the middle when Pentland describes some social experiments that he performed at the MIT Media Labs. Validating some assumptions that I have always had that engagement means more than just working face-to-face with other team members he details how a prototype badge was able to identify key members within a community. By equaling out everyone's participation it increased the dynamics and resulted in a situation where everyone was more productive.

Following on the heels of a few more examples he then digs into a problem that I was first introduced to by Erik Dahl and Matt Nish-Lapidus at MidwestUX last year. What responsibility do developers, designers, and others shaping the future of connected cities have with regards to privacy and respecting people's freedoms? 

Pentland proposes that it should be people who have control of their data. In an appendix he provides more details on a suggested framework. As a grand idea it is well intentioned but thanks to commercial interests I could not imagine something like it being created without outside pressures.


This is a light simple read that should take no more than four hours to finish depending how deeply you dig into the material. With nice executive summaries at the end of each chapter you could even skim it for big ideas in about a half hour. Overall it is a worthwhile read. You may not come away with any new insight but it does raise important questions for the design community about future responsibilities as we move away from desktop and web based experiences to iBeacons, traffic systems, and invisible frameworks that have no user interface at all but have a big impact on people's lives.