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social physicsToo much reliance on data could "bias us into thinking that our problems stem from our own poor choices," writes Evgeny Morozov in a New York Times review of The Naked Future by Patrick Tucker and Social Physics by Sandy Pentland (5/18/14). The problem, says Evgeny, is that data can tell us what might happen and to whom, "but the exact reasons defy us." So, we might blame ourselves, when in fact our problems might also "stem from the failures of institutions, not just individuals."

Evgeny thinks both Patrick and Sandy have too much "uncritical enthusiasm for prediction." Patrick notes that data that can do anything from "predict earthquakes" to produce "highly customized education courses" tailored "to the needs of individual students." Sandy "wants to arm employers with sophisticated gadgets that would allow them to monitor the communicative activities of their employees and coax them toward more productive behaviors so their cognitive activity isn’t wasted on trifles."

Patrick argues that "our outmoded ideas of privacy begin to get in the way of progress of better health," while Sandy says, "What isn’t measured can’t be managed." What this ignores, says Evgeny, is the limitation such thinking imposes on our capacity to resist creating and leaving the digital breadcrumbs that produce the data in the first place. "Perhaps it’s easier to resist the power that bars us from using our smartphones than the one that bars us from not using them," he writes. "Big data does not a free society make."