How should we analyse our lives?

‘Whether you love or hate this new form of data science, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle’

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A few years ago, Alex “Sandy” Pentland, a professor of computational social sciences at MIT Media Lab, conducted a curious experiment at a Bank of America call centre in Rhode Island. He fitted 80 employees with biometric devices to track all their movements, physical conversations and email interactions for six weeks, and then used a computer to analyse “some 10 gigabytes of behaviour data”, as he recalls.

The results showed that the workers were isolated from each other, partly because at this call centre, like others of its ilk, the staff took their breaks in rotation so that the phones were constantly manned. In response, Bank of America decided to change its system to enable staff to hang out together over coffee and swap ideas in an unstructured way. Almost immediately there was a dramatic improvement in performance. “The average call-handle time decreased sharply, which means that the employees were much more productive,” Pentland writes in his forthcoming book Social Physics. “[So] the call centre management staff converted the break structure of all their call centres to this new system and forecast a $15m per year productivity increase.”

When I first heard Pentland relate this tale, I was tempted to give a loud cheer on behalf of all long-suffering call centre staff and corporate drones. Pentland’s data essentially give credibility to a point that many people know instinctively: that it is horribly dispiriting – and unproductive – to have to toil in a tiny isolated cubicle by yourself all day. Bank of America deserves credit both for letting Pentland’s team engage in this people-watching – and for changing its coffee-break schedule in response.

But there is a bigger issue at stake here too: namely how academics such as Pentland analyse our lives. We have known for centuries that cultural and social dynamics influence how we behave but until now academics could usually only measure this by looking at micro-level data, which were often subjective. Anthropology (a discipline I know well) is a case in point: anthropologists typically study cultures by painstakingly observing small groups of people and then extrapolating this in a subjective manner.

Pentland and others like him are now convinced that the great academic divide between “hard” and “soft” sciences is set to disappear, since researchers these days can gather massive volumes of data about human behaviour with precision. Sometimes this information is volunteered by individuals, on sites such as Facebook; sometimes it can be gathered from the electronic traces – the “digital breadcrumbs” – that we all deposit (when we use a mobile phone, say) or deliberately collected with biometric devices like the ones used at Bank of America. Either way, it can enable academics to monitor and forecast social interaction in a manner we could never have dreamed of before. “Social physics helps us understand how ideas flow from person to person … and ends up shaping the norms, productivity and creative output of our companies, cities and societies,” writes Pentland. “Just as the goal of traditional physics is to understand how the flow of energy translates into change in motion, social physics seems to understand how the flow of ideas and information translates into changes in behaviour.”

Is this progress? Many FT readers may shout “no”. Social physics raises a plethora of privacy issues, especially if you tag people.

And while Pentland insists that these can be managed with sensible co-operation and laws, others such as Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald disagree. And there is another more subtle problem with this idea of people-watching. Although computer scientists tend to think that digital breadcrumbs are as neutral as atoms, and can be analysed using the tools of physics, in reality they can be culturally influenced too. As Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist working at Intel has observed, data are always organised, collected and interpreted by people. Thus if you want to analyse what our interactions mean – let alone make decisions based on this – you will invariably be grappling with cultural and power relations.

But perhaps the most important point is this: whether you love or hate this new form of data science, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The experiments that Pentland and many others are conducting at call centres, offices and other institutions across America are simply the leading edge of a trend.

The only question now is whether these powerful new tools will be mostly used for good (to predict traffic queues or flu epidemics) or for more malevolent ends (to enable companies to flog needless goods, say, or for government control). Sadly, “social physics” and data crunching don’t offer any prediction on this issue, even though it is one of the dominant questions of our age.

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