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.”

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:

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

What the Internet is Doing to Our Education Culture: Book Review of “The Shallows”

Following is a book review of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains”, though I suggest it’s more aptly titled, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains Culture” and I describe why in this post.

“Culture is sustained in our synapses…It’s more than what can be reduced to binary code and uploaded onto the Net. To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers.” Nicolas Carr, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” a Pulitzer Prize finalist for general non-fiction in 2011

by Nicolas Carr, 2010

Author Nicolas Carr made a name for himself with his article featured in the Atlantic “Is Google making us Stupid” in 2008. Carr is not a proponent of the Internet as one might guess from his article and from the title of his most recent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brain (2010). Though the book’s title implies that the Internet is not good for our brains, makes us shallow, no longer capable of deep and thoughtful thinking and learning, Carr fails to provide convincing evidence that this is indeed the case. A more appropriate title might be The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Culture. Carr describes his own challenges with disconnecting with Internet-enabled devices and social media, which is more of a reflection of our current culture—the constant and often frenetic connectivity to the Internet via our mobile devices. Our behaviours as a society have deeply changed due to engagement with digital media, and it’s this behaviour research suggests, that is responsible for changing our brains. Granted the Internet is the vehicle, the catalyst to the Information Age, which impacts society, culture and global economies significantly. Though the point is moot, what I found worthy of consideration while reading Carr’s book from an education standpoint is the concept of ‘efficiency’.  Frequently mentioned throughout the book via the studies quoted, is the idea that the Internet increases efficiency—efficiency usually in the context of work, doing more with less, or in terms of finding information quickly and accurately.

The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient, automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are Internet on finding the “one best way”— the perfect algorithm—to carry out the mental movements of what we’ve come to describe as knowledge work” (p 150)

The Culture of Efficiency and Education
And is this not what we have been hearing in the last couple of years in education circles, how technological advancements can increase efficiencies in education? Efficiency is often cited in the same context as effectiveness, yet more often in terms of cost savings. I was surprised to unearth a book on this topic, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, by Raymond E. Callahan, published in 1962 no less. The author was responding to the post-industrial business model that sought efficiencies in work processes for greater costs savings and higher profits.

Raymond Callahan’s lively study exposes the alarming lengths to which school administrators went, particularly in the period from 1910 to 1930, in sacrificing educational goals to the demands of business procedures. He suggests that even today the question still asked is: “How can we operate our schools?” Society has not yet learned to ask: “How can we provide an excellent education for our children? GoodReads

By Raymond Callahan, 1962

And though Carr references efficiency in his book, it is not necessarily in an economic context as Callahan outlines. Yet the theme of efficiency as it relates to the Internet extends to our education culture—institution leaders, politicians and administrators seeking efficiency in practices and methods (automated grading, online courses with great numbers of students, etc.) Efficiency is not a ‘bad’ outcome to strive for, yet the idea of efficiency in education is frequently referenced in terms of increasing or maintaining education outcomes, with fewer resources. A recent situation in California’s public higher education system illustrates this point beautifully. Governor Jerry Brown looked to online education (MOOCs is more accurate), as a solution to the problem of bottle neck courses, where students couldn’t graduate from public universities due to too many students and not enough general education classes. Brown and members of his team referred to efficiencies frequently:

“Gov. Jerry Brown last year said that the state’s public colleges operate on a high-cost delivery model that the state cannot sustain. The price of a college education in California is growing steadily without “adding productivity or value,” the governor said….Online education is one practical way for the state’s public universities to improve efficiency.

But online education can expand college capacity and access to courses in affordable fashion. That approach is sensible for the UC system — and a worthwhile start on the much larger task of creating a more efficient and sustainable higher education system.”  The Press Enterprise

In fact, there are numerous articles and papers describing efficiencies in education published by many prominent organizations involved in education. This article for example, Higher Education: Quality, Equity and Efficiency published by the OECD which has this to say:

All nations face the challenges of mobilising more resources and using them effectively in meeting the strategic goals of society with maximum efficiency. “

I’ve referenced the theme of efficiency as it relates to education here which is really not the thrust of Carr’s “The Shallows“, however his book raises several interesting points about how the Internet has affected our culture which extends to our culture within education. The book is a worthwhile read, specifically for the references to how the Internet affects our ability to educate and learn—though learning not from a scientific perspective but from a behavioural one. However, when it comes to efficiency and education, I rather like Callahan’s question posed in his book “Education and the Cult of Efficiency”, ‘how can we provide an excellent education for our children’, and I would add to this, ‘in a connected world’.  The latter is now on my to-read list.

Further Reading: