- Editor's note: Alex Pentland's next book, Social Physics: How Ideas Turn Into Actions will be published in January 2014 by Penguin Press.
- Today's cities and governments still operate according to principles developed two centuries ago, during the industrial revolution. To address 21st-century problems such as exploding population growth and climate change, we need new thinking.
- Big data can deliver that thinking. The digital bread crumbs we leave behind as we go about our daily lives—which reveal more about us than anything we choose to disclose—provide a powerful tool for tackling social problems.
- Yet concerns about misuse of this information are valid. Before data mining can deliver a healthier, more prosperous society, we need a New Deal on Data that gives individuals far more control over their information than they have today.
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By the middle of the 19th century, rapid urban growth spurred by the industrial revolution had created urgent social and environmental problems. Cities responded by building centralized networks to deliver clean water, energy and safe food; to enable commerce, facilitate transportation and maintain order; and to provide access to health care and energy. Today these century-plus-old solutions are increasingly inadequate. Many of our cities are jammed with traffic. Our political institutions are deadlocked. In addition, we face a host of new challenges—most notably, feeding and housing a population set to grow by two billion people while simultaneously preventing the worst impacts of global warming.
Such uniquely 21st-century problems demand 21st-century thinking. Yet many economists and social scientists still think about social systems using Enlightenment-era concepts such as markets and classes—simplified models that reduce societal interactions to rules or algorithms while ignoring the behavior of individual human beings. We need to go deeper, to take into account the fine-grained details of societal interactions. The tool known as big data gives us the means to do that.
This article was originally published with the title The Data-Driven Society.