Science Book a Day Interviews Alex Pentland


Special thanks to Alex Pentland for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science

Alex `Sandy’ Pentland has helped create and direct MIT’s Media Lab, the Media Lab Asia, and the Center for Future Health.  He chairs the World Economic Forum’s Data Driven Development council, is Academic Director of the MIT-Harvard-ODI Big Data and People Project, and is a member of the Advisory Boards for Google, Nissan, Telefonica, Monument Capital, and the Minerva Schools. – From MIT Profile

Alex’s Twitter:

#1 – What was the impetus for Social Physics?

It seemed to me that management literature was mostly just personal experiences, that psychology was mostly about `effects’ that could not be used to design better institutions, and that only science that applied to society as a whole was economics…and it was just too one-dimensional.  So  I set out to really measure human behavior objectively and come up with a wholistic, real-world yet quantiative picture of human organizations.

#2 – You talk about the concept of idea flow. What is idea flow and why is it so important?

After measuring behavior in groups, companies, and entire cities, it emerged that the pattern of communication…and particularly the pattern of mixing between different groups….which I call idea flow…was the single largest factor for both innovation and productivity.

#3a – Your book highlights a new way to analyse the myriad data we put onto the internet.

The book is not about analyzing the information on the internet, it is about understanding human universals.   The place where I talk about information we put on the internet is in my work on privacy….people don’t have enough control over information that is about them, and I have helped forge new standards and create new software that offers much better privacy protection.

#3b – What does this say about what is important to humans?

The science in this book shows that social relationships, and in particular the ideas we share with each other, are the clockspring of human society.

#4 – What has been the response to your book?

Very enthusiastic among most scientists, the business community, and government leadership.
However cultural spokesmen and pundits have not been happy: I think they see their power being eroded by the possibility of actually knowing how society works.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

The main focus of my current work is around building a digital ecology that protects people’s privacy, and yet encourages the sort of sharing of ideas that is the ultimate source of social innovation.

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