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Social Physics – How Big Data teaches us more about ourselves

Social Physics – How Big Data teaches us more about ourselves

Written by Michael Gizicki-Neundlinger | Reviewed by Gabriela Ayala

Created on: 06 Jul 2020 | Updated on: 09 Jul 2020

News category: "News on Living Innovation"

Alex 'Sandy' Pentland on new ways of exploring our behavior

Our guest in this week's Responsible Innovation Story is Professor Alex 'Sandy' Pentland, a top computer scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and one of the most influential thinkers on Big Data worldwide. He directs the MIT Connection Science, an MIT-wide initiative working to create the future of digital technologies. Previously, he founded and directed the MIT Media Lab and the Media Lab Asia. Recently, Forbes declared him one of the "most powerful data scientists in the world". For him, Big Data helps unravel the social physics that govern our individual and collective behavior.


“Social interactions guide our individual behavior. Now with all these data, we can measure and even predict it.”


Our daily interactions, norms and habits have a strong influence on the way we live. Big Data opens immense opportunities to analyze these intangible aspects of our lives. Still, our institutions tend to overlook social aspects.

Our most important insights from this interview with Sandy Pentland:

  • Analysis of Big Data opens big opportunities – ample information can help build better government mechanisms and management structures.
  • Big Data is often concentrated in the hands of only a few big tech companies.
  • We need to establish new institutions, e.g. data cooperatives, which put data back into the hands of the people. Only then, we can have collective action based on real empirical evidence.


The interview was taken prior to the outbreak of Covid-19. Therefore, social distancing measures were not implemented.


Enjoy watching the full interview at!

Click on the time stamps to watch the respective topics:

00:00 A New Sociology?

02:16 What Governs Our Individual Behavior?

04:45 The Long History of Social Physics

07:19 Reputational Mechanisms Change the Social Fabric

11:00 Privacy - The Global Picture

12:18 Big Data in the Hands of the People

14:43 With New Data Comes New Responsibility

16:16 New Institutions to Counterweight the Power of Big Tech

16:41 A New Take On Innovation

19:04 The Utmost Importance of Open Algorithms

20:29 Political Power in the Era of Social Media

21:54 Social Physics and Grand Societal Challenges

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