BELOW IS THE LETTER I WROTE TO PROFESSOR PENTLAND ABOUT HIS "SOCIAL PHYSICS" AND OUR OPINIONS REGARDING THAT NAME.
HIS RESPONSE CAME TO ME THROUGH TWITTER. IT IS REALLY GREAT. HE SAID:
" the term has disappeared at MIT because cybernetics is everywhere, like air."
Dear Professor Pentland,
I read your book SOCIAL PHYSICS very recently. Your findings on how people interact and the maps with their actual network of interactions is absolutely captivating. Your work is not only very interesting, but groundbreaking. Your colleagues and you have shattered many of the assumptions made in traditional Economics for example. It is hard not to agree with the proof that you give on why it is that people act as they do, and not because of some economic law improvised as an explanation.
After I read your book, I wrote to a few friends who share a passion for CYBERNETICS, the science created as a team effort lead by professor Norbert Wiener, also from MIT. Initially Cybernetics was defined as the science of control and communications in the animal and the machine. Now, Second Order Cybernetics it has become a paradigm for all Systems Thinking.
After collecting some of the thoughts and suggestions of my cybernetician friends, I feel the need to share with you the following:
I understand why you called your field social physics. You explain that ideas flow through people as energy flows through objects. Can’t argue with that.
However, your research has Cybernetics written all over it, from beginning to end. You talk about feedback, about control, communications, all of which belong to the field of cybernetics as proposed by Wiener and the Macy Foundation Group shortly after WWII. Regardless of the name you chose, and this is your priviledge, we have to conclude that your book is a great contribution to applied cybernetic thinking.
My cybernetic friends and I are aware that CYBERNETICS is being ignored by universities, the scientific community, and the public in general. We worry a bit about this, because we think that it is too important to ignore. There is however a branch of it called Management Cybernetics, created by the late professor Stafford Beer, which shares with you the focus on the behavior of large complex systems, such as society in general and governments in particular. It also focuses en organization problems such as those faced by large multinational corporations, which is also your concern.
To put it simply, Social Physics, Cybernetics and Management Cybernetics go together. Your methods and mathematics are a very usefull tool to study the behavior of people in organizations. The latter can provide a framework. Your work could very well save Cybernetics from oblivion. As far as Management Cybernetics goes, it is just getting started after the interrupted CYBERSYN experiment in Chile in times of Salvador Allende. Thanks to modern computers and sophisticated sofware, Beer’s ideas and Viable System Model can now represent all sorts of organizations working in real-time. Your SOCIAL PHYSICS is going to help build better models and enforce new policies in industry and government.
Here are some of the comments I sent to my cybernetician friends.
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 ryhme, he calles engagement. Clearly engagement is everything that happens from System THREE to System TWO 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 Staffor Beer’s 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 hierachical 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 (factual, verifiable) 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 fixed.
I also made this recrimmination to my friends:
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. To 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).
Now, here are some of the comments I got back from my friends. Some are a bit crude but I want to share with you everything on top the table, as I am sure you would prefer.
“Thus, I see the author of "social physics" as relatively innocent. Yes, if he had met the right people, he might have encountered the world of cybernetics, and not have to have reinvented the wheel. However, there is a large body of knowledge out there, and we can't expect everyone to have gotten the right guidance before they write.
For the layman's community, "cybernetics" is a big word. In high school, most students get introduced to physics. This new term of "social physics" may or may not be related to high school physics, but people think they know what it means.”
I think this book, following your description, is probably another strong indication that the wheel of cybernetics is being re-invented. Some would say that AL and complexity are re-inventions of cybernetics. What is generally the case in these examples is that they are either unaware of, or decline to acknowledge cybernetics. We do not do well in convincing scientists we are both present and significant. I think some of this is because Americans tend to be engineers more than scientists.
What Alex Pentland has been doing is something I have been aware of since I was a graduate student at MIT. MIT's Media Lab has focused heavily on human-machine research since its creation; the lab consistently partners with schools at MIT as well as with firms in the private sector to help promote innovative approaches to real world problems.
Pentland's own approaches seem Cybernetic in their very nature - and I imagine so do most approaches taken by his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab (take a look at their website that lists the projects, research and initiatives faculty, students and visitors have taken and are currently working on) - they have just have never labeled them as such. I can deduce through my research that Alex Pentland's work partly derives from modern information theory (http://bit.ly/RCwIrJ), which has direct applications in neurobiology and physics - from which I think he might have derived his use of the term "Physics". This is pure conjecture - I'm sure his use of the word was inspired from multiple sources.
“What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” William Shakespeare
MIT is always re-branding cybernetics… systems dynamics, system research, re-engineering…”
What I share with you is the sincere loss of the roots Cyberneticians today seem to have. The simple observations are lost believing in a construct of "big data" that is already being rightly criticised for being a isolated construct of just one social experiment and not the roots of human endeavour.
The difference between physics and biology as an explanatory pathway, for me, is night and day. Physics is cold, math, so what, and biology is warm, connecting, interactive and inherent in social relations I experience everyday, and means something to me.
My suggestion is to bring Pentland in contact with cybernetics. When he grasps these cybernetics concepts it will ground his work. He will put the cybernetics concepts in modern language and this recipe will bring cybernetics to others.
Same thing happens with religion, in which there is just one gospel, and then, out of the blue, we get Orthodox, Roman, Reformed, Charismatic, Neo Charismatic, Anabaptists, Arminians, and the list goes on and on.
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 people.
I hope this letter is not misinterpreted. I pay my deep respects to you work.
Where can we go from here?