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Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread— The Lessons from a New Science

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  1,037 ratings  ·  140 reviews
From one of the worlds leading data scientists, a landmark tour ofthe new science of idea flow, offering revolutionary insights into the mysteries of collective intelligence and social influence

If the Big Data revolution has a presiding genius, it is MITs Alex "Sandy" Pentland. Over years of groundbreaking experiments, he has distilled remarkable discoveries significant
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published January 30th 2014 by Penguin Press (first published January 1st 2014)
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Santiago Ortiz
This very well written book contains great ideas that not only are interesting in theory, but very promising if applied to society, as the experiments the author and his team seem to demonstrate. However, this book has a huge problem: it reduces a big picture to the authors particular research, not giving credit nor connecting with multiple different approaches to the same problems. A naïve reader will get the impression that the author and his team are the pioneers or, at minimal, the leading ...more
Paul Wadehra
Feb 16, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: audible
Could be an interesting topic but the writing was dry and the author talked about himself all the time.
Edward Vielmetti
Mar 09, 2014 rated it it was ok
Pentland and his research group have appeared to have discovered a simple model of human behavior with great predictive power. By snooping on people's cell phones, they can reduce typical human interactions into a set of interacting finite state machines, and by noticing just how regular those behavioral patterns are they think they understand ideas. Quite evidently the populations they study live routine, predictable lives. (Perhaps we all do.)

My biggest criticism (& thus the
Hakan Jackson
Feb 16, 2014 rated it it was ok
This book reads like a resume from the author. Through out the book the author claims he and his team made an assortment of discoveries when in all actuality his team merely confirmed experiments conducted by other scientists. Also, the fact that the author makes no mention of memetics shows his naivety in the field, if his repeated extrapolations weren't enough. If this subject interests you try reading "The Half-Life of Facts by Samuel Arbesman" instead.
Nelson Zagalo
I am ashamed of this book and the academy. The next time any academic thinks bad about Malcolm Gladwell, please think twice, read this and find out why most academics shouldn't publish books for the public.

Alex Pentland is a high praised academic from MIT in the domain of Big Data, but this book is not about research, neither about promoting research. This book is more about his achievements memoirs. Do we really want to know about where his publications were accepted, and were he works, or
Aaron Thibeault
Feb 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
*A full executive summary of this book is available here:

The main argument: The sciences that focus on human behavior, meaning the social sciences, have traditionally relied mainly on surveys and lab experiments in their investigations. While valuable to a degree, these sources of evidence do have their shortcomings. Most significantly, surveys offer but indirect evidence of human behavior (and can also be compromised by deception and self-deception);
Apr 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: social-sciences
I went through this book in one sitting. Reminds me of Rational Choice Theory but with a layer of real-time data update and Data-driven-decision-making.

I plan to go back and read "Honest Signals" also by the same author. I had meant to. I'm more motivated now.
Brian Sletten
Aug 26, 2014 rated it liked it
Here's where distilling a critical response down to a single value falls apart. There is a tremendous amount of good content in this book. On that basis, I would have rated it at least a four if not perhaps a five.

The book's style, however, is self-aggrandizing, annoying and extremely off-putting. The author is a leading data scientist. You know that because the summary tells you that. He then proceeds to highlight his involvement in *EVERY* mentioned paper, *EVERY* mentioned spinoff company,
Jan 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
A high 3, around 4 stars!

I did it! I finally finished this book and just in time for school to start tomorrow! A little bit of stress was felt while reading the last 60 pages of this book, since I was trying to get it finished by the start of school, but I actually did enjoy this book overall. I did also feel a little bit rushed and lacked focus, all is good now.

I almost didn't start this book for many reasons, but I am glad that I did. Alex Pentland is smart and insightful about things and I
Feb 06, 2019 rated it it was ok
A friend of mine gave me this book to read and it took me three attempts to finally finish reading it. For my taste, the author pushed himself, his team and his research just a little bit too much to the fore. Also, the uncritical pursuit of making teams, companies, societies etc. "better" (whatever that means) did not quite resonate with me. Methods for gathering the data needed for analysis seem - to me - to be highly intrusive into privacy. A quote that is quite symbolic for the book: "... ...more
Jonathan Jeckell
The writing style contained a hint of sales pitch at times, but the concepts are interesting, and are founded on a number of peer reviewed journal articles. The appendices contain a lot of the mathematics, methodology, and development information, and the text and citations refer to the journal articles to delve into this in more depth, while keeping the text explanation accessible to a general audience, if still a bit jargony. All of this is predicated on "big-data" analysis and computational ...more
Mike Peleah
Feb 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sharp, fast, and smart book about new approach to analysis of and action in networked societies and data-rich environment. The book offers overview of a broad range of researches conducted at or led by Alex Pentland from MIT, all connected by central idea of "Social Physics". Pentland argues that central for our networked society is flow of ideas, and by regulating it we could get better results. Our Data Rich environment offers many opportunities for measuring and designing these flows. The ...more
Jul 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Overall I loved the book, and if Good Reads allowed for it, I'd have given it a 3.5. Maybe that sounds contradictory, let me explain.

The first half of the book is solid. How good ideas spread based social group dynamics, lateral conversations within strict, vertical hierarchies, how engagement is achieved between employees to increase productivity. If this all sounds a little dry, Pentland manages to make it lively with examples from real life applications he and his research team conducted.

Jul 18, 2014 rated it liked it
"The most productive people are constantly developing and testing a new story, adding newly discovered ideas to the story and then trying it out on everyone they meet. Like sculpting raw clay into a beautiful statue, over time their story becomes more and more compelling. Finally they decide that it is time to act on it, to bring it into the light and test it against reality. To these people, the practice of harvesting, winnowing, and sculpting ideas feels like play. In fact, some of them call ...more
Rishav Agarwal
Feb 17, 2017 rated it liked it
A good place to start for anyone who would like to know more about Sandy's amazing work in understanding social connections. The writing is a bit dry so do treat it as a longish review paper and not a pop science novel.
Dec 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting book. Advances the seemingly obvious claim that the increased flow of ideas between and among human agents (whether, e.g., in certain businesses, closed markets, cities, or societies) conduces to the more efficient functioning of the systems they're embedded in. Makes the further claim that idea flow increases as a function of a small number of variables, such as the relative level of engagement of agents with each other, and their relative level of exposure to the innovative ...more
Sean Kottke
Feb 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: professional, 2014
The key take-aways about the ideal conditions for effective idea flow dovetail nicely with other notable recent works on group dynamics and innovation (such as The Rainforest). Organizations that allow their members to be prolific explorers of diverse ideas and provide them with rich opportunities to exchange and expose each other to those ideas will thrive. Not a surprising finding there, but the research-based insights into how face-to-face and virtual peer networks may be incentivized to ...more
Bett Correa-Bollhoefer
Apr 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Social Physics is an excellent book on how to create an innovative culture in your organization. The big take-a-ways:
Creative people do the following steps
1. Absorb ideas from diverse sources
2. "Test these ideas" on lots of smart people and seeing which ideas pass their BS test.
3. Taking these new ideas that come out of the tests and testing them on more diverse people

Ideas can only "flow" by people communicating them with others.
Face to face meetings are the strongest way to create a
Jun 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is different from most social theory books as instead of simply promoting ways of communication and how make society work better cooperatively, it uses big data to prove if methods work or not. I wouldn't say it's ground breaking, but offers a unique perspective that hasn't been offered before.

My complaint with the book is that near the end, it felt like a doctorate thesis about looser privacy regulations so he can get better access to individuals data for his own personal research.
Apr 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books on social physics. It follows, using big data, the ways in witch not only good ideas are created but also how societies develop. Its main objective is to ask what are the roles and evolution of diversity, engagement, social trust, social intelligence and innovation, following both business management and urban development. A must read for those who want to be up to speed on the subject.
Dec 02, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Bruce by: ITSC, CIOC & CAOC
Shelves: social-science
Alex Pentland is a numbers guy, and this book represents his initial attempts to parlaying to a lay readership his myriad published studies, summaries, and academic analyses of big data-derived computer models. The book is subdivided into three sections, but near as I can tell, there are really only two big ideas here: (1) that aggregated data can be reduced or distilled in such a way to permit "tuning" of human behavior without observer effects (akin to Asimov's Second Foundation and every ...more
Dec 28, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The case studies, by using big data, introduced in this book indicate that (a) people primarily rely on their peers for social learning and interactions (flow of ideas) hence shape highly patterned behavior based on common sense, (b) repeated cooperative interactions among members of the community (engagement) brings movement toward cooperative behavior, (c) to enhance face-to-face engagement is a key factor to improve productivity and (subjectively judged) creativity, and (d) social physics is ...more
Alexander Smith
Oct 29, 2017 rated it liked it
This is a very good read that I would consider a part of a growing collection of very similar "21st century interdisciplinary social science" themed, accessible reads. This is a read somewhat echoing works like Linked by Barabasi, Going Viral by Nahon and Hemsley, Triumph of the City by Glaeser, The Stack by Bratton, and others. Social Physics echoes a new brand of a 'new science' steeped in an era of big data science, modern statistics, and network methodologies with a focus on tying older ...more
Viachaslau Bernat
Jul 30, 2019 rated it liked it
I found the book quite randomly on the library shelf. The title and foreword intrigued me and I gave it a try.
It's a bit weird to read about 'cool new data science' 5 years after the book was published but it gave me a perspective. Just googling the fate of mentioned startups showed what ideas were good, and what was not as good (or maybe just too early).
That part of the book that explained human collective behavior was quite informative and had some easily testable practical advice. It also
Oct 24, 2017 rated it liked it
Not quite as intriguing as I wanted it to be, so I didn't finish it by the time it was due back at the library and I'm not going to buy it...

"What I (author: Alex Pentland) have learned from these experiences is that many of the traditional ideas we have about ourselves and how society works are wrong. It is not simply the brightest who have the best ideas; it is those who are best at harvesting ideas from others. It is not only the determined who drive change; it is those who must fully engage
Yusuph Mkangara
Feb 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Book had some solid food for thought around social networks and the real money is probably around scrutinizing their mathematical models. There were some core examples that kept being repeated such that the last social physics for society section lacked any real memorable examples outside of Ivory Coasts D4D. I was most disappointed by the lack of serious critical reflection of very real social constructs such as race and power. They are often dismissed (class is about the only one given some ...more
May 26, 2019 rated it it was ok
Social physics is a metaphor Sandy Pentland adopts to embrace a class of data science research. It is largely, but not exclusively, about the flow of ideas between individuals taken from large datasets of telephone and actual mobility, talk, and other residue of human behaviour.

I came to this book after reading Shoshana Zuboffs Surveillance Capital. In this book Zuboff made Pentland one of her chief boogeymen of a reductive behavioural science, heir to B.F. Skinners lab rats.

One of Pentlands
Jul 31, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Pentland seems to be a researcher that will expand significantly the frontier of knowledge about human behaviour. The book gives glimpses of techniques that he developed to analyse several spheres of human interaction, such as companies and cities. I particularly enjoyed his concepts about the impact of the flows of ideas. I also liked the notion that when we start processing all data created by human interaction, economics itself will be forever transformed, not relying anymore on ...more
Roy Wang
The entire book can be largely summed up by one big (but not new) idea: Free and increased information flow promotes collective intelligence, productivity, and creativity. That being said, the book does a good job of explaining what various empirical research combining big data, statistics, and sociology reveal about the potential benefits of improved idea flows on social dynamics, engagement, and innovation at different scales. A few of the author's proposals, however, seem a bit idealistic, if ...more
Dec 09, 2018 rated it liked it
Useful overview of some projects related to the use of big data to examine social and economic behavior. I'm not so sure that he's reinventing the social sciences as much as asking some questions that couldn't be asked with limited data sets. Where that leads is anyone's guess. My biggest concern is not assuaged by his discussion of protection of personal privacy, since corporations and governments run roughshod over such guidelines in secret. Invasion of privacy by collecting electronic data ...more
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