Airport bookstores are bewildering places – shelf after shelf of management gurus offering distilled lessons on leadership, change and everything else. How to distinguish snake oil from substance? My Christmas reading, based on a recommendation from someone attending a book launch in the US last month (thanks whoever you were – all a bit of a blur now) was Alex Pentland’s ‘Social Physics: How Social Networks can make us Smarter’. I must confess, as a lapsed physicist, the title swung it for me, but I learned a lot from this book. At least I think I did – let’s see if I am still using the ideas in a few months’ time.
Social Physics is not a new idea. Auguste Comte, the founder of modern sociology, coined the phrase back in the 19th century. Comte and his crew aspired to explain social reality by developing a set of universal laws—the sociological equivalent of physicists’ quest to create a theory of everything. As with economics, that kind of physics envy has proved largely delusional. Now though, Pentland argues that the arrival of Big Data means we can aspire to a ‘thermodynamics of society’, where behaviour is governed by discernible mathematical laws. It does not deny free will – Pentland does not claim to be able to predict individual behaviour, but finds a high degree of certainty in mass behaviours, which appear to follow particular patterns (like atoms in a gas).