Pentland, Alex, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-the Lessons from a New Science, New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2014. vii + 320 Pages. $27.95 (hardback)
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Alex Pentland has written a fascinating book describing the new land coming into view through the combination of “big data” and mathematical techniques for exploring the contours of that data. Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the lead researcher on many projects pioneering this union is well positioned to guide us to this newfound country, one that offers promising new regions for social science research.
What has led to the possibility of what Pentland calls “social physics”? Essentially, it is the creation of sophisticated mobile computing devices. Imagine if, forty years ago, a social scientist had wanted to track the movements of a million people on a minute-by-minute basis for a year: it would have required either fitting each one of them with an expensive, custom device, or having a million researchers track them around for a year. Obviously, no research group could afford such a study. But we live in a world in which people have “fitted” themselves with...