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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?

  • 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 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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 21, 2014 @02:54PM (#46808045)

    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...

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