Nicolas Carr on ‘Social Physics’…The Darker Side of Reality Mining

BigDataImageIt’s this article ‘The Limits of Social Engineering that piqued my interest this week, first because of the image featured in the article which I found appealing, then it was the reference made to Marshall McLuhan, a scholar and author I admire greatly, and finally because it was by Nicolas Carr, author of the book, “The Shallows” which I reviewed this week on my blog. But it’s the article’s unusual topic that grabbed hold of me by the collar and motivated me to share it with readers—something called ‘reality mining’.  Reality mining is an advanced branch of data mining and is central to the book “Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science that Carr reviews and draws from in his article. Carr provides a good overview of not just the book, but of the science, and hints at the potential ills of reality mining, or as the book’s author calls it ‘social physics’ (or ‘mislabeled’ it as several reviewers of the book on Amazon claim). With reality mining researchers and scientists create algorithmic models using ‘big data’ generated by human movements and behaviours tracked by mobile phones, GPS, wearable tech or tracking devices to analyze and predict social and civic behaviour. Reality mining, with the expansion of mobile phone penetration globally in the past year and now wearable internet enabled devices, is likely the next big thing in data mining. Already many experts extol the virtues of reality mining and what it can do for institutions, society and the public good. As quoted on the book’s website:

John Seely Brown, Former Chief Scientist, Xerox Corporation and director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC):

“Read this book and you will look at tomorrow differently. Reality mining is just the first step on an exciting new journey. Social Physics opens up the imagination to what might now be measurable and modifiable. It also hints at what may lie beyond Adam Smith’s invisible hand in helping groups, organizations and societies reach new levels of meaning creation. This is not just social analytics. It also offers pragmatic ways forward.”  socialphysics.media.mit.edu/book

We can already catch a glimpse of reality mining in businesses and organizations taking shape. The WSJ featured an article this week by Deloitte that describes the target market for wearable devices which is not consumers, but organizations or ‘enterprise’.  It seems there is unlimited potential for fitting employees with these wearable tech devices to gather data to support better decision-making at the workplace.

Reality mining takes Big Data to a new level, and as Carr emphasizes Big Data can and likely will be used to manipulate our behavior. It’s the idea of manipulation in this context that is disturbing.  Several questions come to mind like this one—who makes the decisions on the actions to take to manipulate a society’s behaviour? And, based on what values?

Below researchers describe how behaviour can be manipulated, as excerpted from “Social Physics” within Carr’s article:

book-cover-hi-res-2-crop-1
Author of “Social Physics”, Alex Pentland will be teaching “Big Data and Social Physics” via the edX platform. Start date: May 12, 2014

“They go into a business and give each employee an electronic ID card, called a “sociometric badge,” that hangs from the neck and communicates with the badges worn by colleagues. Incorporating microphones, location sensors, and accelerometers, the badges monitor where people go and whom they talk with, taking note of their tone of voice and even their body language. The devices are able to measure not only the chains of communication and influence within an organization but also “personal energy levels” and traits such as “extraversion and empathy.” In one such study of a bank’s call center, the researchers discovered that productivity could be increased simply by tweaking the coffee-break schedule.”

Closing Thoughts
Like Carr, I too am somewhat wary of reality mining, or ‘social physics’.  Though in examining Marshall McLuhan’s works, who Carr refers to in the opening of his article, I find wisdom in McLuhan’s words that so accurately describe what is happening now—within the realm of big data for instance.  The website managed by McLuhan’s estate includes snippets of interviews, quotes and links to his works that are worthy of perusing and pondering. I found the quote below applicable and insightful when considered in context of reality mining.

In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in-depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner.”  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, (p 4)

Worth pondering, is it not?

Further Reading

4 thoughts on “Nicolas Carr on ‘Social Physics’…The Darker Side of Reality Mining

    1. Hi Caroline. I thought so too; I’d not heard of reality mining, though really it makes sense that it will be the next phase given our constant ‘connenctedeness’. Thanks for reading Caroline! Debbie

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      1. Lately it happens to me that imagining certain things that I read is difficult but when you stop a bit and see hindsight it makes sense. It all goes to fast and the boundaries between private and public are blurring! It’s always a pleasure reading you!

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