In his new book, “Social Physics,” Alex Pentland, a prominent data scientist at M.I.T., shows as much uncritical enthusiasm for prediction as Tucker, while making a case that we need a new science — social physics — that can make sense of all the digital bread crumbs, from call records to credit card transactions, that we leave as we navigate our daily life. (That the idea of social physics was once promoted by the positivist Auguste Comte, one scholar who would have warmed to the idea of Big Data, goes unmentioned.)
What is social physics good for? It would allow us to detect and improve “idea flow” — the way ideas and behaviors travel through social networks. For example, Pentland wants to arm employers with sophisticated gadgets that would allow them to monitor the communicative activities of their employees and coax them toward more productive behaviors so their cognitive activity isn’t wasted on trifles. More.
They used to call that kind of thing Nineteen Eighty Four, but updates happen.