Dear Javier,
Thanks for the heads-up about Mr. Pentland’s book.  It only came out
January 31st.  It has attracted mentions in The Economist and Wall Street
Journal, among others.
His book, like every PhD thesis, is supposed to add to the body of human
knowledge -- however unlikely such an event turns out to be truly
original or pathbreaking.
A corollary of the quest for putative originality is this.  To disguise
one’s true lack of originality, great care must be taken to coin new
terms that can’t be traced easily to old discoveries made by other
In derogation of our favorite field (Beerian Management Cybernetics),
such academic obfuscation has succeeded several times there at Mr.
Pentland’s home base, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  It
succeeded with Norbert Wiener (cybernetics) and with Jay Forrester
(system dynamics).
Pentland’s phrase social physics had to be coined (I subversively
suggest) because Ross Ashby beat him to the definition of cybernetics as
political physics.  (This reminds me that George Otto Trevelyan defined
social history as history with the politics left out.)
Mr. Pentland is presumed to desire placing his fingerprints on as much
academic credit as he can get his hands on.  He would like as much
recognition and admiration for his sleight of hand as can be garnered.  

Therefore he would not wish to encounter a bunch of iconoclasts bent on
setting him straight, or diminishing his putative originality.
In other words, we management cyberneticians ought not try to pop his
inflated balloon.  Instead let’s try to start just a slow leak.  Here’s
In 2011 you were elected Vice President for Membership by the American
Society for Cybernetics (ASC).  In that capacity why don’t you (along
with Stuart Umpleby and Allenna Leonard) write him, and invite him to
make a presentation (suggested title "What’s New About Social Physics").
Pump him up!  Invite him specifically to represent M.I.T. at the 50th
Anniversary of the organization whose name was coined by that matchless
M.I.T. figure, the late Norbert Wiener.
Point out that the International Society for the Systems Sciences will be
holding forth at The George Washington University Graduate School of
Business July 27 -August 1, to be followed immediately at the identical
venue August 3-9 by the American Society for Cybernetics.  These should
be great and multiple opportunities for him to enlist new adherents under
the social physics banner.
Allenna Leonard is a past president of both organizations.  Perhaps she
could join you in issuing the invitation for Pentland to present what’s
new about social physics?
I for one would very much like to hear how he thinks his work offers a
new slant on what ISSS and ASC members concern themselves with.  In
particular, how does he propose for social physics to be modeled?

- - - - - - - - - 
On Wed, 23 Apr 2014 13:43:38 -0500 Javier A Livas Cantu
<[log in to unmask]> writes:
Take a look, how do we create some synergy? Cybernetics could benefit

Javier Livas

Sent from my iPad

Cel. 81 10 50 90 92

Begin forwarded message:

From: Javier A Livas Cantu <[log in to unmask]>
Date: April 20, 2014 at 1:59:34 CDT
To: Roger Harnden <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Cause for concern


To my cybernetician friends,

I do not know if I am mad, shocked, disappointed, or rejoicing.  Allow me
to share the burden and surprise of my most recent discovery.

The past two days I spent most of the time reading a book I bought called
SOCIAL PHYSICS.  It is written by Alex Pentland and it came out this year
published by The Penguin Press.  Pentland is Director of MIT’s Human
Dynamics Laboratory and a very active entreprenuer in his own right.  His
Internet site is

The cause of my dismay that I want to pass on to all of you is the
realization that this book has PHYSICS in its title when I am very
positive that it should say SOCIAL CYBERNETICS.

Allow me to make my case before I ask all of you getting this e-mail that
we, as a group, decide if there is something we should do to correct what
I think is a mistake, a very regretable mistake.

Here is what the author says about the name chosen for the book.

“Social physics is a quantitative social science that describes reliable,
mathematical connections between information and idea flow on the one
hand and people’s behavior on the other.  Social physics helps us
understand how ideas flow from person to person through the mechanism of
social learning and how this flow of ideas ends up shaping the norms,
productivity, and creative output of our companies, cities and societies.
 It enables us to predict the productivity of small groups, of
departments within companies, and even of entire cities.  It also helps
us tune communication networks so that we can reliably make better
decisions and become more productive.” P. 4

“This focus on the flow of ideas is why I chose the name “social
phyiscs”.  Just as the goal of traditional physics is to understand how
the flow of energy translates into changes in motion, social physics
seeks to understand how the flow of ideas and information translates into
changes in behavior.” P. 5

“Social physics focuses on social learning as the major driver of habits
and norms. is inherently probabilistic.” P. 16

“The social phyics which is emerging brings together branches of
economics, sociology, and psychology, along with network, complexity,
decision and ecology sciences and fuses them together using big data.” p.

As you can tell from the quotations above, what the author is talking
about is cybernetics.  Communications, control, information and
purposeful behavior, as well as norms and rule-making and governance are
the subject matter of cybernetics, not physics.  The fact that he is
isolating individual persons and looking out for physical connections or
interactions (some form of communication) to explain changes in behavior
has nothing to do with physical laws and everything to do with
cybernetics and feedback, and learning, and control.

I do not know why the author came up with such an unfortunate name.  He
argues that there is a need to provide people with a:

 “... language that is better than the old vocabulary of markets and
classes, capital and production.  Words such as “markets”, “political
classes”, and “social movements” shape our thinking about the world. 
They are useful, of course, but they also represent overly simplistic
thinking; they therefore limit our ability to think clearly and

So here is my question:  Isn’t the phrase “social physics” quite

Having made the preceding criticisms to the name of the book, I cannot
speak enough about the enormous contribution that it is making to applied
cybernetic thinking. 

I have no interest in confronting the author of the said book.  I would
rather center on what I think is the grave mistake that we, as
cyberneticians and followers of Stafford Beer’s ideas and ideals,
continue to make when we keep our science to ourselves. 

One of the arguments made by Pentland is precisely that some groups
become “echo chambers”.  Pentland’s book is living proof that we have not
done enough to diseminate cybernetics and that I was being realistic when
 I said that the academic world has by now almost lost track of
cybernetics, its origins, evolution and importance. For that reason I
decided to create CYBERNETICS: The Superscience of Interconnectedness in
YOUTUBE.  Too bad I do not find enough support to spread the video or
make a better one.  Too bad we do not cooperate among ourselves to
produce higher quality materials about what we already know.  It seems to
many cyberneticians want to be explorers, creators, and not engagers (to
speak in Pentland’s terms).

I would say that almost every page of this Social Physics book has an
argument in favor of saying that is it about cybernetics and not physics.
 So I would like to list a few quotations.  It has so much about
management cybernetics that it really boggles my mind.  In fact, this
book, I dare say is perhaps one of the most important contributions to
management cybernetics I have ever seen.

1.- The book is full of references to recursive structures.  All his
conclusions hold true for individuals, groups, cities, and societies.

2.- He makes a distinction we make in the VSM about “exploration” and
“exploitation”.  Except that what I have called exploitation for purposes
of making both words rhyme, he calles engagement.  Clearly engagement is
everything that happens from System Three to SystemTwo and System One of
the Viable System Model.

3.- When you read about the way he explains “collective intelligence” and
the requirements for it to come to fruition, he could very well be
describing the Team Syntegrity protocol’s features.

4.- Social Physics is about “transfering information or ideas”.  It is
about behavior being controlled by information or by “idea flow”.  (If
this is not cybernetics, then we should quit saying cybernetics exists.)

5.- Big Data emerging from smart phones and special electronic tags allow
information about behavior to be monitored, he says, in “real-time”. 

“The key to better systems is real-time monitoring of conditions,
continous exploration for the best response ideas, and then engagement
around these in order to obtain a coordinated, consistent response to
changed conditions.” P. 209

6.- Everything of importance behavior wise is happening in networks of
people, not so much in hierarchical organizations.  These are obsolete.

7.- We must seek “operational efficiency”. P. 207

8.- “... Our current financial, transportation, health, energy, and
political systems all seem to be failing us.  Perhaps in part, this
because they were all designed in the 1800’s...”

9.- “We now need to begin applying these lessons to reinvent our current
economic, government, and work systems..”

10.- He talks about fast and slow thinking in humans.  Take a look.  You
will find something that he is pointing at cybernetic logic versus
syllogistic logic.  The first is done by fast successive approximation to
a recorded experience and the other through detailed analysis.  We have
talked about this for decades now.

11.- The author is in essence most of the time talking about learning as
it happens in Complex Adaptive Systems, whether groups, societies or
cities.  It is the agents who copy the success of those who are creative
and successful.  This strategy saves a lot of information processing and
works quite well. Stafford talked about the different methods for
acquiring knowledge.  Authority based on experience is a very important
one, no doubt.  

I could go on.  I guess by now the point is clear.  We should discuss
what should we do in regards to this book and its author.  I suppose we
can get in touch with him and let him know what we know that is connected
to his efforts and see what comes out of that.

I am sure some of you will have your own opinions about the book and
about our role in regards to its contents.  I would very much like to
hear from you.

Since I wrote THE CYBERNETIC STATE in 1994, this is probably the first
time that my dream of a cybernetic state gets a boost by someone who
ranks very high in the academic world.  The author clearly suggests that
information and not only markets, for instance, should shape our
collective decisions.  This book clearly shows that the new world of
massive available information could lead to a much better “cybernetic
state” of affairs.  Too bad he is thinking about physics, but that can be

Thank you for you help in this very important matter.

Your friend,

Javier Livas

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