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The Limits of Big Data For Social Engineering

samzenpus posted about 5 months ago | from the what-do-the-number-say? dept.

Social Networks 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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frosty (3, Insightful)

Hognoxious (631665) | about 5 months ago | (#46807411)

What could possibly go wrong?

Stop INSULTING US!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46808377)

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

HOW STUPID DO YOU THINK I AM. ThIS IS INSULTING!!

Re:Stop INSULTING US!! (2)

SirSlud (67381) | about 5 months ago | (#46808417)

We knew you'd say that.

Re:Stop INSULTING US!! (1)

Sciath (3433615) | about 5 months ago | (#46819183)

Couldn't agree more. It's sickening though the fact that most people don't seem to care one iota whether or not they are being manipulated like automatons. Most people seem to even revel in the fact that someone is thinking for them and using data and demographics to get you to do things one wouldn't normally so. Such as spend money they don't possess or own. Take for example Americans. They are the biggest debtors on the planet. And that includes the conservatives, the (Ron) Paulines, the Tea Partiers, etc.

This sort of stuff has been tried before (1)

kaladorn (514293) | about 5 months ago | (#46812719)

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 Data is going to turn out to be a) not as useful as anyone thinks and b) even where it is statistically accurate, it will tell little or nothing about individual instances, thus limiting utility for many purposes.

Big Data can do some things. I can collate and correlate vast data samples and perform other useful descriptive statistical tasks. When they start to move off into inferential activities, I suspect things start to break down.

I don't feel like the data about what I do with my smart phone will usefully tell anyone much about me that they could not have obtained otherwise. And its value as a tool to sell me things is fairly dubious.

Wrong audience (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807431)

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

"just like physicists!" (0)

globaljustin (574257) | about 5 months ago | (#46807861)

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!"

Re:"just like physicists!" (1)

suutar (1860506) | about 5 months ago | (#46808367)

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 molecules.

Re:"just like physicists!" (1)

NemoinSpace (1118137) | about 5 months ago | (#46811217)

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 directly at the screen when making your choice.
Nature insists on allowing for the possibility of humans to correctly interact with her - and bets against them.

Spherical Cows (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807435)

This is great and all, but how do we dumb the model down enough that it's usable? What is the social equivalent of a spherical cow?

On a serious note, this could really be a double-edged sword. Not conforming to the model of behavior? Into the gulag with you, citizen.

Re:Spherical Cows (1)

Giant Electronic Bra (1229876) | about 5 months ago | (#46808491)

Well, this is a good question. Simple models are only possible when there are very limited higher-order effects. Look at climate models, we have vast amounts of data, but the system being modelled contains complex non-linear dynamics. You can make general predictions about the global behavior of such a system, which might be useful in some sorts of social engineering, but you probably can't get a very good handle on the details. This means it may well be impossible to say what sorts of inputs to the system will cause it to move in various directions. That would obviate the possibility of 'engineering' such a system, except perhaps in some very crude ways, which are probably already well within the capabilities of modern politicians.

Re:Spherical Cows (1)

user32.ExitWindowsEx (250475) | about 5 months ago | (#46812031)

Or, as biological computer interfaces improve, "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated."

Rose colored glasses (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807443)

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

Where is Hari Seldon when you need him... (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807449)

Ah, Asimov was ahead of his time.

basic mechanisms of social interactions (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807463)

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

Prelude to Foundation (1)

jabberw0k (62554) | about 5 months ago | (#46807467)

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...?

Re:Prelude to Foundation (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807739)

Fallom will doom us all.

Re:Prelude to Foundation (1)

LifesABeach (234436) | about 5 months ago | (#46807913)

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?"

Re:Prelude to Foundation (1)

tmjva (226065) | about 5 months ago | (#46816791)

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

Re:Prelude to Foundation (1)

gzuckier (1155781) | about 5 months ago | (#46820641)

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

That would have been GWBush.

that could be bad (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#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).

Dream on (4, Insightful)

ganv (881057) | about 5 months ago | (#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.

Re:Dream on (2)

timeOday (582209) | about 5 months ago | (#46807617)

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"?)

(Said the uranium atom that didn't want to decay) (4, Interesting)

joh (27088) | about 5 months ago | (#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.

Re:(Said the uranium atom that didn't want to deca (1)

boristdog (133725) | about 5 months ago | (#46808331)

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.

Re:(Said the uranium atom that didn't want to deca (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46809509)

even weirder with physics, the closer you look at the uranium, the less you are sure that it's really there at all. it looks like some sort of knot in waves of energy combining with others according to probabilities. There's no "thing" actually there to measure the size of at some point.

One of the fundamental AI issues is figuring how that can apply to social groups and individuals. It's not going to be solved. It's probably even the wrong way to look at the question.

Re:(Said the uranium atom that didn't want to deca (1)

dcollins (135727) | about 5 months ago | (#46810373)

"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 market, as much as the desire is there.

The fact that people (and thus societies) are engaged in conscious feedback loops means that they're qualitatively different from masses of dumb particles.

Re:(Said the uranium atom that didn't want to deca (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46811077)

Good luck with this... it's not like I can have scantily clad H to help the Uranium decay faster. Unfortunately it'll be hard to figure out why I tip a waitress, without seeing how far out of my league she is but show much cleavage and how much she pretends to like me... all of these are subconscious factors but there's now way in hell I'll tell admit to this. Mrs. Coward would cut off my balls.

Re:Dream on (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807789)

You are presuming that people are highly complex. That's a popular opinion but might not hold true under scrutiny.

It could be that once you have all the data it turns out people aren't all that complex and the appearance of complexity comes from the decades of iteration (your social interactions today trace back to crap you don't even remember happening when you were a toddler).

Social prediction could be a lot like weather prediction (highly accurate within certain ranges).

Re:Dream on (3, Interesting)

ganv (881057) | about 5 months ago | (#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.

Psychohistory? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46808169)

Asimov predicted that you'd be able to predict what the masses will do, not what an individual will do. There's too much uncertainty with an individual. But with enough of them and a good enough statistical model, you can get some good extrapolation . . .

Anyway, we're a LONG ways from that being anywhere close to accurate. More importantly, I don't know about you, but I don't want the government that can't even balance it's own checkbook to try and balance my individual life. It's already engaged in enough social engineering with detrimental effects.

Re:Dream on (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46808597)

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 change over time. Revolutions occur. Social norms shift and gain popularity *against* the accepted norms (witness MLK and the fight for equal rights here in the US).

Any model that is based on the idea that people will 'go with the flow' will fail to predict the very natural, and not entirely uncommon, shifts in societal behavior.

Re:Dream on (1)

Bob9113 (14996) | about 5 months ago | (#46809067)

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 -- predictions based on coarse models. Thirty years ago our understanding of the physics of car crashes was less complete than it is today, and the cars were less perfectly safe -- but they were more safe than the ones from thirty years before that. Similarly, our ability to program society on a mass scale is not as perfect today as it will be in ten or one hundred years, because our models are coarse approximations which will become increasingly precise. But we can make useful predictions in social engineering, and design crumple zones and traction control systems based on those predictions. Like their automotive equivalents, they will be imperfect and only able to exert a limited amount of influence on the course of events.

Ignoring that reality leaves the controls in the hands of others, who may not have your best interests in mind.

Re:Dream on (1)

ganv (881057) | about 5 months ago | (#46811335)

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 that allowed major improvements in auto safety that was partly rooted in approximate theories and partly in phenomenology. That distinction between an approximate theory (classical mechanics plus solid mechanics) and a phenomenology (observing auto crashes and drawing conclusions about what the important processes must be) is very important. With human interactions, we have many pieces of phenomenology (some pretty complicated parts of this are taught as 'social skills' in pre-school). But we have nothing in the way of a theory whose approximations are understood and whose predictive power goes beyond the situations from which the phenomenology was derived. I would argue that predictions in social engineering are essentially extrapolations of phenomenology that might work and might not...you simply don't know until you do the experiment. Whereas in classical mechanics, you know much more about what is going to happen including the Lyapunov exponents for chaotic systems that tell you when your predictions will no longer be accurate.

Your last comment is about political control. You seem to mean that our phenomenology will improve as big data mines human behavior and we learn to use that data and those ideas to control others. We do need to be careful who controls that. Although I suspect that the degree of control achievable by such means is easy to overestimate.

Re:Dream on (1)

fmertz (625614) | about 5 months ago | (#46816151)

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 separation on Facebook has a physics story. Batting averages have a physics story. The only system that has any possibility of being open is the Universe, so everything else, all systems you can think of, including the sociology of the selfie has a physics story. There is an algorithm somewhere in there. We just haven't found the right perspective to figure it out yet. There will one day be a Einstein of social physics.

understanding and statistics (4, Insightful)

kruach aum (1934852) | about 5 months ago | (#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.

That's causal inference (1)

martas (1439879) | about 5 months ago | (#46808791)

Judea Pearl and others have done a lot to work that out. It's the science of answering "what if". It's not impossible.

Re:That's causal inference (1)

kruach aum (1934852) | about 5 months ago | (#46809301)

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.

Re:That's causal inference (2)

martas (1439879) | about 5 months ago | (#46809427)

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.

Re:understanding and statistics (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46811089)

But Sandy went to MIT, so he/she knows all!

Racial Profiling (1)

timeOday (582209) | about 5 months ago | (#46807529)

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.

As long as there's a single $ to be made... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807533)

the Republicans will keep abusing these tools. Also, these tools make it easy to determine which people to fuck over because so many people will either fill-out their race or give-out enough data to make it obvious. For Suckerberg, News Corp w/ myspace, and the rest of their kind, hurting minorities has been their number one goal. Just look at how bad myspace is and the demographic that still uses it. Murdoch is punishing African Americans with that horrific site. It is horrible that he is allowed to do that.

Re:As long as there's a single $ to be made... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807673)

I know right? I can't believe how the republicans managed to pass legislation forcing minorities to use myspace.

Re:As long as there's a single $ to be made... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807749)

You realize 'your party' does the same thing. Hell they BRAG about it and how 'far ahead of the republicans' they are. If you think only one party is doing targeted demographics your dreaming.

hurting minorities has been their number one goal
Yeah and making sure everyone is part of a minority and everyone has their 'group' they belong to is good too right? If you think that you drank too much koolaid.

Just look at how bad myspace is and the demographic that still uses it.
They have a demographic? My staunchly republican family loves facebook judging by the non stop republican propaganda on my wall...

"Obama's Tech Wizards" bullshit (1)

globaljustin (574257) | about 5 months ago | (#46807967)

You realize 'your party' does the same thing. Hell they BRAG about it and how 'far ahead of the republicans' they are. If you think only one party is doing targeted demographics your dreaming.

yes but not quite...there's a difference in scale & depth of corruption

as to the "BRAG" you mention...I know what you mean...it's the dipshits from Chicago "startup" that were profiled several times in places like Time Magazines under headlines like "Obama's tech wizards" and bullshit like that...

if you look at it...the 2012 election vs 2008 the notion that his 2012 "tech wizards" somehow **outperformed** the 2008 strategy is absolutely silly...if anything they fucked him over by telling him to narrow his message...aka "target"...

the whole "Obama's 2012 tech wizards" narrative was *hype from a dumb startup*

Here's the secret to getting elected: focus on registering as many people as possible and then communicating with them about what's important to them in **all the ways humanly possible** without violating privacy

it's really that simple

Re:"Obama's Tech Wizards" bullshit (2)

pepty (1976012) | about 5 months ago | (#46808687)

It didn't take much to be ahead of Romney's GOTV tech solution, seeing as it was either crashed, unreachable, or unuseable for most of election day.

"Republicans" first but others second (0)

globaljustin (574257) | about 5 months ago | (#46807901)

the Republicans will keep abusing these tools. Also, these tools make it easy to determine which people to fuck over because so many people will either fill-out their race or give-out enough data to make it obvious

fuck yeah!

also: it's more than just those jerk-offs you mention

it's like we have a huge asteroid that is a "planet killer" followed by dozens of smaller "city killer" sized ones headed *straight for earth*...we obv need to take out the first one but the job isn't over at that point

Hillary Clinton...wtf...I want to think that if she gets elected she wont be beholden to corporatists, but that's not her typical M.O.

there are many others...but Democrats will fall in line to a progressive agenda if either one brave person pushes the limits and is rewarded *or* someone like Hillary gets defeated by an Elizabeth Warren type

Forest for the trees (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807547)

Most notably, all the data being considered is wholly commercial in nature. For these people, an interaction between human beings that doesn't involve a third party cannot possibly exist.

Experience = Cynicism (1)

Tablizer (95088) | about 5 months ago | (#46807561)

Industry over-extends usage of fad and is disappointed when it can't produce magic.

Gee, would've never seen that coming.

Wall Street has claimed to do that (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807567)

>we'll soon be able to have a mathematical understanding of 'the basic mechanisms of social interactions.'

Wall Street has claimed to do that countless times, and countless times, they have been proven wrong with a monumental market crash, around every 8 years or so. We should be due for one soon.

Works for dumb people... sure. (4, Interesting)

TheNarrator (200498) | about 5 months ago | (#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?

Re:Works for dumb people... sure. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807783)

The machine will read their social interactions and adapt its probabilities with the new data. Control enough of the population with this and those 10% who don't submit get marginalized.

Re:Works for dumb people... sure. (2)

houghi (78078) | about 5 months ago | (#46807987)

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

Re:Works for dumb people... sure. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46809481)

Also, 5 smart people against a wave of 100 dumb people is what makes money.

You could be the most brilliant mind of your time, but if a thousand voices drone you out shouting for mcdonalds...

Ah, the power of numbers!

You are the Deus IN machina (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46808513)

In a pistachio nutshell:

Their paradigm is based on that human behavior is deterministic and as such predictable. To them it is purely the result of chemical and electric phenomena. We believe there is a ghost in the machine, they do not. We will find out which holds true. However the "people behind the curtain behind the people behind the curtain" certain know better. Their hope their current crop of Kurt Lewins et al., is to limit human expression by further surpressing the ghost in the machine.

To lean more start here:

http://www.tavinstitute.org/pr... [tavinstitute.org]

More in hope than expectation. (2)

petes_PoV (912422) | about 5 months ago | (#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?

Re:More in hope than expectation. (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 5 months ago | (#46807703)

I don't think you understand science.

Re:More in hope than expectation. (1)

njnnja (2833511) | about 5 months ago | (#46808115)

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.

Re:More in hope than expectation. (1)

pepty (1976012) | about 5 months ago | (#46808733)

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.

Re:More in hope than expectation. (1)

tomhath (637240) | about 5 months ago | (#46807971)

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.

Re:More in hope than expectation. (1)

joh (27088) | about 5 months ago | (#46808119)

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 particles, but since never deal with individual particles all of this averages out and you can make predictions them as you deal with lots of them.

I'm pretty sure that every single particle would be mightily insulted if you would tell it about physics: "I have free will and nothing is telling me what to do!". Yes. But in the big picture what this particle does or not does just doesn't matter.

"like physicists" (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807639)

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.

Being handled ... (2)

BitZtream (692029) | about 5 months ago | (#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

Re:Being handled ... (1)

joh (27088) | about 5 months ago | (#46808341)

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 actively resist it and then all their individual idiocies (which usually aren't very unique anyway but just a handful of familiar patterns) average out and you can nearly treat them as a fluid with certain parameters. You're seem to be a good example of that.

And if you really think we can get by on this very small planet with 7 or more billions of us just by letting things go, well. We need to get organized for real.

I think understanding nature (and this includes us) has always been the key for our success as a species and stopping with understanding things because we feel insulted by "being handled" is idiotic. We basically stopped being animals exactly when we got a grip on the world around us. And this world is now made up by mostly... us. So we need to get a grip on us. There's no way around that. Either that or we will descend again and since we have long exhausted all easily accessible resources we will never get a second chance. There's only one way left for us and this way is onwards.

Hari Seldon called (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807675)

He's not impressed by your MIT data scientist.

Re:Hari Seldon called (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46808043)

I was just thinking the same thing. Watch out for mules.

People that do not understand statistics... (2)

gweihir (88907) | about 5 months ago | (#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.

Oh scientists.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46807881)

> 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 a good thing. Social interactions are not just about behavior, but also genetics. We're programmed to work a certain way, why challenge it? Because it MIGHT result in a net gain from disrupting successful genetic patterns?

Re:Oh scientists.... (1)

mmell (832646) | about 5 months ago | (#46808387)

Hate to burst your bubble, but there's surprisingly little genetic diversity within the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Plenty of ego; but even in Africa (the most genetically diverse population on the planet) there's very little variance.

Re:Oh scientists.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46822411)

Hate to burst your bubble, but there's surprisingly little genetic diversity within the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Plenty of ego; but even in Africa (the most genetically diverse population on the planet) there's very little variance.

Yeah it's less than one so you know it's very little.

Autists FTW (1)

Jmc23 (2353706) | about 5 months ago | (#46807893)

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.

Ignore the man behind the curtain! (1)

XxtraLarGe (551297) | about 5 months ago | (#46807917)

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.

Hari Seldon Called (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46808013)

He wants his deeply unlikely fictional premise back...

We've tried government "tuning" people's behavior (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#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...

Social engineering (3, Interesting)

epyT-R (613989) | about 5 months ago | (#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:Social engineering (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46809507)

Not sure why this _needs_ a political spin, but rupert murdoch's empire suggests otherwise, for gaming purposes.

Re:Social engineering (1)

epyT-R (613989) | about 5 months ago | (#46813069)

"Social engineering" is definitely a part of the utopian sort of thinking that comes with the hard left. Their overriding goal is to reshape society to their parameters. They think they know what's best for everyone else. Stop and think about the implications of that on individual rights, liberties, and self sufficiency (no, I am not advocating anarchy, so spare me the false dilemmas). of course, the neocons have their own brand, pretending to be conservative, but are just as motivated to strengthen centralized control for their slightly different but-not-really reasons.

Where is Hari Seldon when you need him? (1)

mmell (832646) | about 5 months ago | (#46808359)

He'd have the mathematics of psychohistory all worked out for us, by now.

It's controllable. This just makes it observable. (0)

dingleberrie (545813) | about 5 months ago | (#46808455)

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.

The only thing this will tune... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46808863)

...is the maximum amount of money big business can line it's pocket with. More and more rapidly, there's becoming no distinction between big business and government.

How BIG must big be? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46808911)

The deterministic laws of physics comes out of quantum stochasticity, so it's easy to see why one would think the same could be applied to human behavior. An individual is unpredictable but masses of people are very predictable. But how many people must be in the group before that is the case? In physics even a very small object has an enormous amount of individual particles at play. A grain of salt has more atoms in it then their are people on the planet.

Obviously I'm not the first person to bring up Hari Seldon and psychohistory, but the same held true there. You needed a galaxy's worth of population before it became useful.

Makes me think of herding cats. (1)

the eric conspiracy (20178) | about 5 months ago | (#46809219)

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.

Good luck with that! (2)

SeePage87 (923251) | about 5 months ago | (#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.

Re:Good luck with that! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46809637)

I'm getting my Ph.D. [...] how other's prefer to treat each other [...] social norm's

*sigh*

Re:Good luck with that! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46811197)

This is /., we have not friends you insensitive clod!!!

FTFY (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46809795)

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

Supermarket (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46809981)

How is this different from what the supermarkets have been doing for years with their loyalty cards?

so what (1)

johnwerneken (74428) | about 5 months ago | (#46810083)

Not that I'm a fan of prejudice. But history, economics, power, and politics are all very useful very valuable and much more to my liking than arbitrary opinions about what constitutes a social ill or a social good. WE DECIDE what is good or evil BASED ON history, economics, power, and politics, AND WE SHOULD - it crowd sources morality, as Darwin and God intended - that's what morality IS - what benefits the herd and it's members, as determined by the behavior and the resulting history, economics, power, and politics of the herd and of it's members.

Go join a Church of your choice, fool, and leave the real world to realists.

This Is Silly (1)

dcollins (135727) | about 5 months ago | (#46810469)

"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, everyone else was social scientists), and was nearly shouted out of the room when I did a spit-take on an sample published paper held up that involved a sample size of 8 sociology students keeping journals for two weeks. One of the other participants said out loud that she had know idea what the point was of another paper because it was quantitative (i.e., involved numbers) instead of qualitative (i.e., subjective opinions by the researcher). As far as I can see recently the whole discipline appears to be a "null field" [nih.gov] .

Obligatory (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46810713)

Hail Hydra

Erm... don't we have education systems for that? (1)

matbury (3458347) | about 5 months ago | (#46810971)

"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/public-schools-for-sale/ [billmoyers.com]

Public Schools for Sale?

March 28, 2014

Public education is becoming big business as bankers, hedge fund managers and private equity investors are entering what they consider to be an âoeemerging market.â As Rupert Murdoch put it after purchasing an education technology company, âoeWhen it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone.â

Education historian Diane Ravitch says the privatization of public education has to stop. As assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, she was an advocate of school choice and charter schools; under George W. Bush, she supported the No Child Left Behind initiative. But after careful investigation, she changed her mind, and has become, according to Salon, âoethe nationâ(TM)s highest profile opponentâ of charter-based education.

On this weekâ(TM)s Moyers & Company, she tells Bill Moyers, âI think whatâ(TM)s at stake is the future of American public education. I believe it is one of the foundation stones of our democracy: So an attack on public education is an attack on democracy.â

Diane Ravitch is Americaâ(TM)s preeminent historian of public education. Her newest book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to Americaâ(TM)s Public Schools.

Idiot (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46811903)

The WAR has been started for quite a while already!

Things I doubt this could have predicted: (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46812113)

The Beatles (rise to fame, uh, and hysteria), The Tea Party, sushi becoming normal food for yuppies, long hair in the 60's for young male middle and upper class youth, long hair in the 70's for blue collar and redneck male youth, etc. etc.

Resistance is futile. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46816825)

You will be assimilated.

The Borg called... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46816841)

and they want their Big Data back!

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