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The Limits of Big Data For Social Engineering 95

Posted by samzenpus
from the what-do-the-number-say? dept.
An anonymous reader writes "In his new book, Social Physics, MIT data scientist Alex 'Sandy' Pentland argues that by analyzing data from smartphones, social media, and credit-card systems, we'll soon be able to have a mathematical understanding of 'the basic mechanisms of social interactions.' Social scientists will be able to understand and predict the interactions of people the way physicists understand and predict the interactions of objects. That will, in turn, enable governments and businesses to create incentive systems to 'tune' people's behavior, making society more productive and creative. In a review of Pentland's book in Technology Review, Nicholas Carr argues that such data-based social engineering 'will tend to perpetuate existing social structures and dynamics' and 'encourage us to optimize the status quo rather than challenge it.' Carr writes, '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.'"
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The Limits of Big Data For Social Engineering

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  • frosty (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Hognoxious (631665) on Monday April 21, 2014 @01:54PM (#46807411) Homepage Journal

    What could possibly go wrong?

    • Similar in a fashion to this story....

      Some geographers tried to use the math model that describes the migration of particles between atoms to try to describe population migrations between population centers. This (if I recall) was called the Gravity Model. And it was a huge attempt to make the softer sciences a bit harder by 'mathing them up'. Beyond that, it was trying to shoe-horn the data to fit the theory.

      It failed and fell into just disrepute.

      I have a feeling that much of the 'amazing power' of Big Dat
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 21, 2014 @01:56PM (#46807431)

    This is for some BA forum. Not a BS forum like this!

    • good comment...I came here to post a violent rebuttal to the notion that:

      Social scientists will be able to understand and predict the interactions of people the way physicists understand and predict the interactions of objects

      but then I saw your comment and realized that i'm not the only one who thinks this research is absolute shit ...srsly..."just like physicists!"

      • by suutar (1860506)

        Bah. They already can. "Person interacts gravitationally with other masses - check." :)

        But seriously, the problem with this notion is that (a) 7ish billion 'particles' is a really small universe. (b) an individual person is more complex than any elemental particle or even atom. Some molecules may get there, but then we're well out of physics and into chemistry... and predicting the full behavior of one complex molecule is still out of reach (see folding problems), much less the interactions of two arbitrary

        • Sure, but ultimately we are talking about predictive behavior, and oddly enough the problem becomes binary, thusly:
          In an easily controlled environment a person will be given 2 options, or choices if you will. One will be relatively innocuous and maybe even related to the subject at hand. The other will be a horrendously stupid choice that may result in damage to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.
          There will be a large warning banner on the top of the screen advising participants: Do not look dire
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Yes, because surely governments want to make society more productive and creative instead of giving themselves more money and power.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 21, 2014 @01:58PM (#46807449)

    Ah, Asimov was ahead of his time.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I think I wrote that back in middle school

    10 wake up
    20 go somewhere public
    30 regret it and go home
    40 sleep 28800
    50 GOTO 10

  • Big Data wants to be Multivac, Google wants to be R. Daneel Olivaw, and now Hari Seldon has sufficient data to begin his work. Yet, as in Foundation and Earth, is a benevolent dictatorship by remote overlords truly the answer, or is there still something missing that could doom us all...?
    • I tried ignoring the phrase, "...will tend to perpetuate existing social structures and dynamics' and 'encourage us to optimize the status quo rather than challenge it...," I couldn't understand why such a learned person just wouldn't use the term "mediocrity?"
    • by tmjva (226065)

      I think "The Mule" would be the first portent of doom.

  • that could be bad (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I read that as 'we would like to change your opinion by using tricks'.

    This strikes me as mass manipulation.

    If you want to change someones opinion you need to show them why it is bad.

    For example yesterday I demonstrated to a waitress how her feeding of the jukebox was a bad idea. All of her fellow employees were saying 'dont put any more money into that it is a waste of money'. 'But its only 2 dollars a day'. I spoke up with 'what if you had say 500 dollars right now what would you do?' 'OH I would pay of

  • Dream on (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ganv (881057) on Monday April 21, 2014 @02:02PM (#46807499)
    "Social scientists will be able to understand and predict the interactions of people the way physicists understand and predict the interactions of objects."

    Many of us technical types would love for this line of inquiry to be fruitful. But to have a 'physics of people' you have to know the values of all the parameters needed to specify the current state of a person and you need to know all interactions of that person with the rest of the universe. Phrased like that you can see how ludicrous it is to dream of using the methods of physics for social science. Physics works because the fundamental constituents of the universe happen to be only a small number of particles whose interactions are amazingly simple. For example all electrons are exactly identical and interact via only 3 forces (with some uncertainties about effects on scales larger than galaxies and energies higher than trillions of electron volts). The hope for a theory of sociology is a false hope. The hope for a useful phenomenology might be more reasonable and big data can help.

    • by timeOday (582209)
      Psychology will never be as simple or predictable as Newtonian physics. On the other hand, the fact that "big data" is driven primarily by market forces (in particular, targeted marketing and automated trading) seem to give credence to the concept that information can be used to narrow probabilities somewhat. (Perhaps this is what you mean by "useful phenomenology"?)
      • by joh (27088) on Monday April 21, 2014 @02:50PM (#46807985)

        The irony is that at a deeper level it's utterly unpredictable what and when a single particle will do in physics. Take a lump of uranium -- it's easy to predict when how much of it will have decayed to lead. It works all the time, always the same. But look at a single uranium atom and there's no way to predict when it will decay. It may be the next second or in a thousand years. All you have is probabilities but these work out into cold, hard predictable facts if what you're dealing with is a lump large enough.

        Psychology works very similar. You can't predict what an individual person will do, but look at enough of them and you'll be able to predict what will happen if you have good enough data. YOU may have "free will" and the freedom to do what you want but as a mass we may still follow strict laws, like everything else in nature.

        You may feel insulted by that or you may see such things as great tools for better understanding of social dynamics.

        • by boristdog (133725)

          Except in Physics, ALL particles will follow the same basic laws and behavior over time. People are more complex systems and don't follow the same behavior. A lot of people often don't even follow sensible behavior. But those are the easiest to manipulate.

        • by dcollins (135727)

          "Psychology works very similar. You can't predict what an individual person will do, but look at enough of them and you'll be able to predict what will happen if you have good enough data. YOU may have "free will" and the freedom to do what you want but as a mass we may still follow strict laws, like everything else in nature."

          I think this is raw, Asimovian geek fantasy. Do you have a citation for this assertion? Social uprisings catch people by total surprise every generation. No one can predict the stock

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Not to mention that the fundamental model they are using to try to predict people's behavior is that they will mimic others. This yields a static model of human behavior in which all human behavior would naturally collapse into a homogeneous pattern of behavior (everyone trying to behave like everyone else).

      Anyone who has observed human behavior or studied history knows this is not the case. People naturally fragment into groups and then oppose the ideas of those from other groups. Ideals morph and chang

    • by Bob9113 (14996)

      to have a 'physics of people' you have to know the values of all the parameters needed to specify the current state of a person and you need to know all interactions of that person with the rest of the universe.

      Do you mean in the same sense that in order to understand the "physics of an automobile accident" you must understand the detailed modern physics of every component of the car?

      Classical physics is like social engineering; it is an approximate science which makes useful -- yet imperfect -- predictio

      • by ganv (881057)
        What does it take to specify the state of a car? Many would claim that the dimensions of all parts and the material properties of the alloys and composites is a pretty complete description. You don't need all the modern physics. You just need a model that is quantitatively adequate for the level of accuracy desired. Simulating the classical/solid mechanics of a full auto crash is still a bit beyond us, but we can simulate many parts of the process. Even before simulation, we developed an understanding
    • by fmertz (625614)
      Small world, scale free networks are seen in everything from city streets to silly, Hollywood based parlor games to the brain's synaptic connections. The temperature variations of the CMB also form a small world, scale free network. Since the CMB is the fingerprint of the Universe's birth, these repeating network patterns are seen everywhere in greater forms of complexity, resonating by 13 billion years of interacting gravity waves. Therein lies the simplicity that drives social. The 4.7 degrees of separat
  • by kruach aum (1934852) on Monday April 21, 2014 @02:02PM (#46807503)

    seem to me to be two separate things. Statistics tells you what happens when. Understanding tells you why things happen when they do. Statistics can give you data, but not reasons. Understanding requires both. Even with all the data in the world, we're still going to need some kind of interpretative framework to make sense of it all, and creating that framework is the one thing Big Data doesn't make easier.

    • Judea Pearl and others have done a lot to work that out. It's the science of answering "what if". It's not impossible.
      • Causal inference is not the same thing as understanding, otherwise I would've understood why my girlfriend was angry with me after I gave her a sack of potatoes instead of flowers for our anniversary.

        • by martas (1439879)
          Cool, you keep giving her sacks of potatoes and understanding why she's angry. I'd rather give her a box of chocolates, and not understand why I got laid.
  • Racial profiling is a good concrete example of this. Crime statistics are often used to rationalize race-based profiling, but it is key to realize that by taking this step you are moving beyond passively understanding the present, into using that information to shape the future, thus perpetuating a problem that should instead be solved.
  • Industry over-extends usage of fad and is disappointed when it can't produce magic.

    Gee, would've never seen that coming.

  • by TheNarrator (200498) on Monday April 21, 2014 @02:12PM (#46807605)

    What are they going to do when they find out it doesn't work for smart people or people who make conscious decisions to alter their behavior based on their own research? They will just be ignored as outliers because they don't fit in to the statistical modeling. How does the machine learning algorithm model a learning human unless it knows where they're going before they do? What if people inside the model start computing social interactions based on a different model? Do we prohibit these people from evolving their behavior because they don't live inside the machine's conception of how they should act?

    • by houghi (78078)

      It does not have to work on 100% of the people. Just on enough to make money of it.

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Monday April 21, 2014 @02:13PM (#46807629)

    Social scientists will be able to understand and predict the interactions of people the way physicists understand and predict the interactions of objects

    Since social scientists are completely unable to quantify anything in their field of study, I somehow doubt that they will ever come anywhere close to doing "real" science in the way that physicists can: with their "laws", measurements and equations.

    But maybe this person doesn't really have much idea how proper scientists do their work?

    • by geekoid (135745)

      I don't think you understand science.

      • by njnnja (2833511)

        I think the author would have done better to say "Web marketers will be able to understand and predict the interactions of people the way mechanical engineers understand and predict the interactions of objects." There's no need to bring science into it at all.

        • by pepty (1976012)
          Even more accurate: "Web marketers will be able to predict the interactions of people". No need to bring understanding into it, they'll just be getting a list from a black box that tells them which people to spam with which ads at which times.
    • by tomhath (637240)

      Physicists can, for example, tell you how fast a given object will accelerate when a force is applied to it.

      Social scientists cannot tell you how each individual person will respond to an incentive, but they can tell you roughly how a certain percentage of a population will respond; knowing that is enough to influence the behavior of a group of people.

    • by joh (27088)

      Statistics works the same with people as with atoms and this is real science. Individuals may be hard to quantify, but a mass of people certainly is. That's the reason for the fact that with a small random sample you get reliable data about the population. The fact that YOU may not be part of that sample just is irrelevant since what you do is mostly irrelevant (or only relevant with a very small probability).

      In physics this is exactly the same: You can't make any predictions when it comes to individual par

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Nope. And even more: NOPE!
    What it will actually give are the ways society CAN change to make people more productive,
    creative, and happy. These changes will not occur. They will be counter to the desires of the CEOs
    and Politicians who want more productive WITHOUT the changes that might hurt or decrease their power.

  • by BitZtream (692029) on Monday April 21, 2014 @02:17PM (#46807665)

    I've found that most people don't appreciate it when they realize they are being 'handled' and it usually ends badly.

    The question is ... how long will it take the population to realize they are ... if ever?

    Someone was supposed to apply the PAX before they published this article

    • by joh (27088)

      Civilisation is all about getting organized. We have learned a lot about that in the past, but this still is like alchemy. Thinking that millions or billions of people in their entirety are different than lots of atoms (who are totally unpredictable individually but highly predictable in larger lumps) is magic thinking.

      But yes, there's a difference here and this is being aware of what happens and understanding things which can lead to feedback. But be assured, most people don't want to understand. They even

  • by Anonymous Coward

    He's not impressed by your MIT data scientist.

  • by gweihir (88907) on Monday April 21, 2014 @02:35PM (#46807851)

    ... typically think they can predict individual events from statistics. That is not how it works. Statistics lets you predict statistical things, e.g. how the average of, say, 1000 people will react given a specific situation, when you have an observation how the average of 1000 other people reacted to that situation, but only if the selection was random and there are not many possible reactions. It tells you exactly nothing about how a specific individual will react.

  • I'd like to suggest History is more determined by the ones of us too stupid to understand the social norms were supposed to bow down to.
  • Nicholas Carr argues that such data-based social engineering 'will tend to perpetuate existing social structures and dynamics' and 'encourage us to optimize the status quo rather than challenge it.'

    That's the goal. As long as there's enough bread and circuses to go around, the social engineers can make the masses dance to their tune.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It was called "the Soviet Union." Adding smart phone and Facebook data wouldn't have made that clusterfuck of genocidal failure [battleswarmblog.com] any better...

  • Social engineering (Score:4, Interesting)

    by epyT-R (613989) on Monday April 21, 2014 @02:59PM (#46808103)

    I haven't read the book, but this summary sounds a lot like the new left's cultural marxism, with the latter half referencing political correctness as justification. Whether it is or not, most people don't like being 'gamed' in this way, and when they find out, the backlash can be far worse than the desired outcome and/or the original status quo.

  • He'd have the mathematics of psychohistory all worked out for us, by now.
  • And who shapes our perception of history, politics, and economics, power and prejudice?

    I'm still waiting for the media to publicly question the cause of WTC tower 7 collapse as hard as they've questioned any heart-tugging story about someone that went missing.

  • I don't think people are that simple, static or homogeneous.

    It will be like squeezing down on a watermelon seed. The harder you squeeze the higher the escape velocity.

    I mean holy unintended consequences.

  • by SeePage87 (923251) on Monday April 21, 2014 @04:50PM (#46809335)

    I'm getting my Ph.D. in behavioral and institutional economics, so this is right up my ally. Carr's response, that "defining social relations as a pattern of stimulus and response makes the math easier" but misses the deeper structure is dead on, but it's more than this. Social norms may determine much of our behavioral responses, but norms vary tremendously by the institution from which they come: how your group of friends prefer to treat each other != how other's prefer to treat each other != how strangers are "supposed" to treat each other in NYC != out strangers are supposed to treat each other in a small town. Moreover, while these norms may be highly correlated with your behavioral responses, people select into institutions (friend circles, communities, neighborhoods, etc) to a large degree based off their compatibility with the institutions norms; e.g. think about outcomes of social group formation, from mostly scratch, freshman year of college.

    This all matters for the article's context because the behavioral parameters they estimate only approximate social norm's suggested behavior, but the suggestions ultimately come from those who chose to adhere to that particular set of norms; trying to "tune" people in ways they don't intrinsically want will fail because they'll just reselect or simply ignore the competing suggestions in favor of those authentic to the group into which they selected. If they take into account that all norms are highly idiosyncratic to their parent institution, it may help with better targeting of products, programs, and information, but the targeting will still have to be revised as people revise their norms; an institution will not revise its norms to conform to what an outside entity feels they should be. So, yeah, I don't think catering to the current observed state of the world can keep norms and society from evolving any more than, say, de jure segregation laws catering to status quo racists/-ism can keep people from forming revising their views about the morality of racism, the laws surrounding it, and their behavioral responses to such societal "tuning", especially over years and generations.

  • "Social scientists will be able to understand and predict the interactions of people the way physicists understand and predict the interactions of objects."

    The fact that this is a century-old Asimovian fantasy that's gone nowhere aside (in the late 80's I was being taught that chaos theory had killed that hope; consider a hundred thousand attempts at predicting the stock market)...

    Do social scientists even know how to do math? I was in a scholarly seminar a few weeks ago (the only STEM person in the room, e

  • "That will, in turn, enable governments and businesses to create incentive systems to 'tune' people's behavior, making society more productive and creative."

    Mmm... there's this thing that most societies have, it's called education. It can be highly effective at 'tuning' people's behavior, making society more productive and creative. But something tells me that's the last thing on the USA's rulers' minds...

    This'll get you up to speed on what they're doing to education in the US: http://billmoyers.com/episode [billmoyers.com]

Machines certainly can solve problems, store information, correlate, and play games -- but not with pleasure. -- Leo Rosten

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