Social Physics

Social Physics

How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science

Penguin, 2014 more...

Editorial Rating



  • Comprehensive
  • Analytical
  • Visionary


Professor Alex Pentland of MIT presents a systematically revolutionary thesis and proposes a new field of study, “social physics.” He urges you to adjust how you think about ideas, personal connections, group interactions, cities, the economy and society. He argues that existing social science and economic models don’t work and advocates the science of social physics, which uses math to examine how “information and idea flow” shape behavior. He builds his argument with clear examples of the nature and value of social physics. Pentland’s persuasive, smooth text is rich with data because his social physics construct depends on big data for its insights. Applying his ideas won’t be easy, but he promises ample societal rewards: creativity, productivity and social efficiency. getAbstract recommends his thoughtful presentation to those interested in social sciences, organizational culture, data analysis, urban planning, networks and the digital world.


The Origins of “Social Physics”

Digital technologies and digital networks have changed how society, government, business and political structures function. Because today’s level of interface between human and machine is new, people don’t understand it. A formerly human-only society has become “a combination of humans and technology.” Adam Smith (1723–1790) wrote of an “invisible hand” guiding the free market. In his day, each city’s middle-class citizens all knew one another. They felt mutual pressure to behave ethically. Modern people are “hyperconnected,” but most connections are weak. The invisible hand doesn’t guide behavior anymore.

Society needs something new: social physics, an emerging social science that uses math to understand how “information and idea flow” shape behavior. Past social sciences theories depended on lab studies or surveys to gather information. Such surveys generated statistical models of average individuals. Big data – which is data about data, in this case sets of information about humanity’s engagement with the digital world – drives social physics. Anything a person does online leaves “digital bread crumbs.” Analysts use...

About the Author

Alex Pentland, PhD, is the Toshiba Professor at MIT, where he helped create the Media Lab, directs the Human Dynamics Lab, and co-leads the World Economic Forum Big Data and Personal Data initiatives. He is also the author of Honest Signals.

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