From social atoms to aggregates
In a recent Perspectives article in Science (subscription required, unfortunately), Alessandro Vespignani lays out a research program that recalls Hari Seldon, the master statistician in Asimov’s Foundation series who has managed to develop a discipline called psychohistory, with which he can predict the future in probabilistic terms.
A huge flow of quantitative data that combine the demographic and behavioral aspects of society with the infrastructural substrate is becoming available […]. Analogously to what happened in physics, we are finally in the position to move from the analysis of the “social atom” or “social molecules” (i.e., small social groups) to the quantitative analysis of social aggregate states, as envisioned by social scientists at the beginning of the past century […]. Here, I refer to “social aggregate states” as large-scale social systems consisting of millions of individuals that can be characterized in space (geographic and social) and time. The shift from the study of a small number of elements to the study of the behavior of large-scale aggregates is equivalent to the shift from atomic and molecular physics to the physics of matter.
Vespignani goes on to briefly discuss reality mining, multiscale modelling and what he calls “network thinking”. He argues that if we succeed in ” […] the gathering of large-scale data on information spread and social reactions that occur during periods of crisis”, ” […] the formulation of formal models that make it possible to quantify the effect of risk perception and awareness phenomena of individuals on the techno-social network structure and dynamics.” and ” […] the deployment of monitoring infrastructures capable of informing computational models in real time.”, we can
imagine the creation of computational forecasting infrastructures that will help us design better energy-distribution systems, plan for traffic-free cities, anticipate the demands of Internet connectivity, or manage the deployment of resources during health emergencies.
The article is part of a special issue on “Complex systems and networks“, and there is additional interesting material there about econophysics, meta-network analysis, scale-free networks and other topics.