In his new book Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—the Lessons from a New Science (The Penguin Press), MIT professor and Big Data savant Alex Pentland surveyed millions of bits of available consumer data—from GPS to cell phone records, in a non-NSA kind of way—to trace the flow of ideas. He thinks understanding that flow is critical to creating a more efficient and productive (not to mention, peaceful) world. We talked to Sandy (everyone calls him Sandy) about maximizing the information flow and innovative potential of your relationship capital.
How can your research about idea flow within communities be applied at the organizational or personal level?
Organizational innovation is spawned by diverse, and likely outside, ideas. In my book, I cite an experiment in which day traders doubled their returns after they were forced to look for tips and strategies outside their usual group of contacts. What that shows is a more diverse network makes for better decisions, and better decisions make more money. It’s the hardest possible proof. Shaking up your network makes you smarter.
The experiment also proves the opposite: When everyone’s thinking similarly you get an unproductive echo-chamber effect, in which the same ideas just circulate around and around. Often the people we associate with most closely are highly correlated and therefore like-minded, with everyone getting information from the same sources. You have to move outside the circle to freshen your view.
What can we do to avoid the echo chamber? And what can we do to escape if we find ourselves caught in one?
It’s natural to collect connections who think like we do. There’s nothing wrong with that—except when it insulates us from different ideas. To fight off isolation, you need to go looking for uncorrelated and different opinions. It definitely takes energy and effort, but it’s crucially important. Take the time to cultivate a network of contrarians, and if ever that bunch all agree with each other, pay real close attention. Somehow, they’ve tapped into a different information source or a different view, and our data show that when contrarians speak in one voice you better listen.
Will this kind of thinking actually spark a restructuring of how we live and work?
In some ways it’s inevitable. The world keeps getting more and more datafied. There’s data on everything—through wearable technology, sensors, the Internet. Sooner or later, we’ll try to use that data to build more creative organizations. What I hope our work has contributed is an emphasis not only on the importance of such innovation but also on what is needed to accomplish it. The idea that you can design organizations specifically to foster innovation is rather radical; not everyone believes it’s possible. But I think our goal should be a society fueled by such innovating organizations. And the quickest way to create those is to not keep people in a box. We need to let them explore.