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The Limits of Big Data For Social Engineering 95

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

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 21, 2014 @02:01PM (#46807475)

    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 off some bills'. 'That is about what you spend per year on that box.' 'oh had not thought of it that way'.

    Honestly, I manipulated her. I was a bit tired of her choice of music. But I used a monetary manipulation to make her stop.

    This sort of manipulation is used to force others into your opinion. A difference of opinion is not a bad thing. However, there are those out there would would see you dead for not thinking exactly like them (and this is more groups than the ones you are thinking of).

  • 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 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.

  • 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.

  • Re:Dream on (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ganv ( 881057 ) on Monday April 21, 2014 @04:12PM (#46808861)
    This hope for an effective theory of human behavior is a reasonable hope. There might be a simple effective model that could describe human behavior without accounting for all of the parameters needed to fully specify the problem. It happens in many fields. We can very accurately predict fluid flows without worrying about the parameters of all the molecules. But for humans, it really is hard to imaging how it might work out. Consider the fact that once some humans have a theory of how humans behave, someone will start using it to gain a competitive advantage and then other people will start changing their behavior in response to knowledge that the theory is being used. It is a fascinating way to be unknowable...to be guaranteed to change as soon as anyone figures it out.

Reactor error - core dumped!