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 people.


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 how.


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?

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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 greatly!

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. 17

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 effectively.” 

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

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 fixed.

Thank you for you help in this very important matter.

Your friend,

Javier Livas
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