Big data and the new behavioralism


In his book Social Physics, MIT’s Sandy Pentland argues that the collection of “big data” on people’s associations and behavior offers a way not only to gain a better understanding of society but to engineer society to be more productive, creative, and harmonious. I review the book in the new issue of MIT Technology Review. Here’s a bit from the review:

Even if we assume that the privacy issues can be resolved, the idea of what Pentland calls a “data-driven society” remains problematic. Social physics is a variation on the theory of behavioralism that found favor [in the sixties], and it suffers from the same limitations that doomed its predecessor. Defining social relations as a pattern of stimulus and response makes the math easier, but it ignores the deep, structural sources of social ills. Pentland may be right that our behavior is determined largely by social norms and the influences of our peers, but what he fails to see is that those norms and influences are themselves shaped by history, politics, and economics, not to mention power and prejudice. People don’t have complete freedom in choosing their peer groups. Their choices are constrained by where they live, where they come from, how much money they have, and what they look like. A statistical model of society that ignores issues of class, that takes patterns of influence as givens rather than as historical contingencies, will tend to perpetuate existing social structures and dynamics. It will encourage us to optimize the status quo rather than challenge it.

Read on.

Image: SimCity screenshot.


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2 Responses to Big data and the new behavioralism

  1. David Hopkins

    Very insightful review of Pentland’s “Social Physics”. Great to read a critical look into the Faustian pact of big data in contrast to the mainstream techno-utopian perspective. After reading Rebecca Lemov’s “World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men”, the sound of ideas such as “Agent-Based Computational Sociology” or “Advanced Dynamic Modeling of Economic and Social Systems” sounds as dangerous as the most pragmatic exploits in control that behavioral sciences have brought into the world.

  2. Thomas Parker

    “There are secret aspects, beyond divining, in all we do – in the makeup of humans above all; aspects mute and invisible, unknown to their own possessors, brought forth only under the incitement of circumstance.”
    Michael Montaigne