Published online: 7 June 2014
Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014
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 just such a tracking device: their mobile phones.
Today, such data is being generated all the time as a simple byproduct of what people are
doing anyway. When smart phones are used in combination with social media such as
Facebook, researchers are offered an even deeper sea of data. And should a researcher
wish to use a custom-made device, as Pentland sometimes does inside corporations, they
can now be manufactured cheaply and take the place of the ubiquitous corporate ID card.
This flood of data can be useful, but it is easy to get carried away with a vision of
having crossed over into promised land:
I think of organizations as a group of people sailing in a stream of ideas.
Sometimes they’re sailing in swift, clear streams where the ideas are abundant,
but sometimes they are in stagnant pools or terrifying whirlpools. At other times,
one persons idea stream fork off, splitting them apart from other people and
taking them in a new direction. To me, this is the real story of community and
culture. The rest is just surface appearance and illusion. (p. 44)
Rev Austrian Econ (2016) 29:93–97
G. Callahan (*)
Purchase College, Purchase, NY, USA
Pentland, Alex, Social Physics: How Good Ideas
Spread-the Lessons from a New Science,NewYork,NY:
The Penguin Press, 2014. vii + 320 Pages. $27.95