Originally published: February 25, 2013
Last updated: February 26, 2013 - 1:20am
In “Reinventing Society in the Wake of Big Data,” M.I.T. Media Lab computational social scientist Alex Pentland argued that the most important data that is becoming available on a vast new scale is information about people’s behavior.
For example, he cites location data from cellphones and evermore consumption data as people increasingly use credit cards for even the smallest purchases. He distinguishes this behavioral data from less-telling data — about people’s beliefs like Facebook communications or Google searches. The fine-grained behavioral data, according to Mr. Pentland, opens the way to changing how we think about society and how a society is governed. Adam Smith and Karl Marx, he explains, thought about markets and classes, respectively. “But those are aggregates,” he said. “They’re averages.” Yet now, Mr. Pentland says, it becomes possible to track social phenomena down to the individual level and the social and economic connections among individuals. The ability to monitor these “micro-patterns,” Mr. Pentland said, means “we’re entering a new era of social physics.”
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