As a new science, "social physics" is an interesting study and Pentland is considered a presiding visionary in the Big Data revolution. "Social physics" is a quantitative social science that describes reliable, mathematical connections between information and idea flow on the one hand and people's behavior on the other. Studies of patterns of information exchange in a social network can predict with unexpected accuracy how effective that network is. Social physics can change the way we look at learning, networks, and data itself.
Although the text itself is not always an easy read, it does make the reader keep on task as to what is pertinent to our use. Pentland provides conclusions from a variety of research studies done by himself and his assistants. In addition, he provides his consideration of where ideas come from and how they turn into behaviors and then into habits.
In his Facebook example he shows that information itself is a rather weak motivator; however, seeing members of our peer groups adopting a new idea provides a very strong motivation to join in and cooperate with others. Some may ask what's the big deal? Is this simply a restatement of "birds of a feather flock together" or "when in Rome we do as the Romans do?" Well, the math geek in me was interested in the equations and the idea of using them to tune networks to perform better or predict the results of changing a network structure.
He lists his "Rules of Engagement" in which the ongoing network of exchanges between people changes their behavior:
1. Engagement requires interaction: Get all members talking. This is not a one way street.
2. Engagement requires cooperation: Make everyone feel part of the team and try to reach sufficient consensus so that everyone is willing to go along with new ideas.
3. Build trust: Expectation of future fair, cooperative exchanges is built from the history of exchanges between people. Both history and momentum are needed here.
The pattern of idea flow was more important than individual intelligence, personality, skill and everything else together in group performance. Think of times you have been involved in a proposed change where there were a large number of ideas (many short ones rather than a few long ones), dense interactions (often short responses), and diversity of ideas with everyone contributing ideas and reactions (where similar levels of return took place among participants). These were often times highly productive and had a lot of buy in from the stakeholders. A safe environment was needed for this to occur. Participants had to be respectful and respected. A group problem-solving ability is key for us in education. It is important for us to keep everyone in the loop and keep interactions high to keep creative abilities high. In Pentland's research from many different organizations, creative output depended strongly on two processes: idea discovery (exploration) and the integration of those ideas into new behaviors (engagement).
The relationship between civic engagement and the health of society had Pentland comment that "because idea flow creates culture, supports productivity, and enables creativity, we should place greater value on professions that enhance idea flow: teachers, nurses, ministers, policemen, along with doctors and lawyers who work for charities, as public defenders, or for inner-city hospitals. Better rewards for work that reinforces our social fabric would allow us to find a better, more sustainable blend between individual ambitions and the health of society."
His description of types of interventions that could influence the social network included social mobilization, tuning the social network, and leveraging social engagement. Social mobilization used a study where many were recruited to solve a problem in a very short period of time (e.g. searching for missing kids or finding critical supplies after a disaster). Tuning social networks involved tuning the network to provide sufficient idea diversity (tuning to reduce recirculation of rumors and spin could focus on making real progress). Leveraging social engagement was helpful by using social network incentives to increase engagement around the problems within the local community (providing gift points to participants' friends and using social incentives rather than standard economic ones were more effective in seeing larger changes than rewards to people to change their own behavior only.)
Maintaining protection of personal privacy and freedom is critical to the success of any society. If one begins to seek cautions for how Pentland is achieving his information and creating his studies, check out how his data is gathered. He proposes a New Deal on Data, which was proposed to the 2012 Consumer Data Bill of Right commission. In it he further delineates how personal data needs to be recognized as a valuable asset of the individual: You have the right to possess data about you. You have the right to full control over the use of your data. You have the right to dispose of or distribute your data. Although these have been parts of many agreements, they are still a work in progress.
He believes that the language of social physics -- exploration, engagement, social learning, and measurement of idea flows -- has the potential to be more useful than the old language of markets and classes. Cooperation is just as important and just as prevalent in human society as competition. Coordination and cooperation among peers are shaping forces that are very powerful. Makes me think that professional learning communities, cooperative groups for students, and civic engagement are more important than competitive scores comparing school districts in improving individual and collective cognitive skills. Ah, but when might this critical mass be reached to achieve the shift? That's the question we could work on together.