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Big Data, social physics, and spatial analysis: The early years


DOI: 10.1177/2053951714535365

Barnes, T. J., & Wilson, M. W. (2014). "Big Data, social physics, and spatial analysis: The early years." Big Data & Society, April-June 2014. 1-14.

p.1: This paper examines one of the historical antecedents of Big Data, the social physics movement. Its origins are in the scientific revolution of the 17th century in Western Europe. But it is not named as such until the middle of the 19th century, and not formally institutionalized until another hundred years later when it is associated with work by George Zipf and John Stewart. Social physics is marked by the belief that large-scale statistical measurement of social variables reveals underlying relational patterns that can be explained by theories and laws found in natural science, and physics in particular. This larger epistemological position is known as monism, the idea that there is only one set of principles that applies to the explanation of both natural and social worlds. Social physics entered geography through the work of the mid-20th-century geographer William Warntz, who developed his own spatial version called "macrogeography." It involved the computation of large data sets, made ever easier with the contemporaneous development of the computer, joined with the gravitational potential model. Our argument is that Warntz’s concerns with numeracy, large data sets, machine-based computing power, relatively simple mathematical formulas drawn from natural science, and an isomorphism between natural and social worlds became grounds on which Big Data later staked its claim to knowledge; it is a past that has not yet passed. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.1: The purpose of our paper is to unpack some of Big Data’s historical burden. Its past is not a unified whole, however, a single complete history. It is much looser, fragmented, multiple, set in relation to many different historical processes (Jacobs, 2009). -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.1-2: Big Data’s past is complicated and fraught. It is tangled up with, among other things, complex histories of computerization, superpower weaponry and defence strategies, military funding, commercialization and advertising, corporatization, government regulation, epistemological fashion and debate, and academic disciplinary research agendas. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.2: We suggest that social physics is connected to Big Data historically through spatial analysis: social physics, as we will argue, influenced spatial analysis, and spatial analysis was then incorporated into Big Data. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.2: Social physics is a long-standing interdisciplinary mode of inquiry. From the beginning it was driven by a belief that laws, theories, and models of physics applied as much to social as to natural worlds. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.2: In telling historical stories of social physics, and particularly of Warntz’s work within that tradition, we are not claiming that social physics is the equivalent to what now passes as Big Data, or even that it is its embryonic version. It is more complicated. The work that Warntz did, as well as other social physicists on whom he drew, contained some of the elements that were later incorporated into Big Data via advancements in spatial analysis, providing one of its proving grounds, helping to shape its formulations and practices. Our larger point is that Big Data and its use in geography didn’t start de novo, from scratch, after the rubble of the past was cleared away. It was erected on that past, which consequently must be examined. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.2: Sorokin (1928: 3) argued that the intellectual foundation of social physics was the Ancient Greek philosophical idea of monistic materialism in which "psychical and social phenomena [were] mere variations of natural phenomena." As a result, regularities and laws found to hold for natural phenomena applied equally as forcefully to social phenomena. Natural and social worlds were isomorphic: one world, one set of principles. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.3: If society was isomorphic to nature, it therefore followed that the social should be written in mathematics too. That was what social physics did. It strove to convert all forms of society into numbers, using mathematics to shed light on its own dim labyrinthine corners. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.3: In some cases, leading scientists also became leading social physicists. For example, the English astronomer Edmond Halley (1656–1742) turned his astrophysical skills in the early 18th century to the life insurance business, using his mathematical expertise to invent actuarial science by setting out statistical regularities from a large-scale analysis of mortality data. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.3: But all of this was just a protracted warm-up for what was to come. Beginning from the early 1940s and continuing to the present, social physics burgeoned, drawing in research money, establishing institutional bases, fostering specialized workshops and conferences, and launching its own journals as well as thousands of academic papers. The current form of the field, also called sociophysics or statistical physics, is dominated by physicists (see, for example, Battencourt et al., 2007; Gabaix and Ioannides, 2003; Stauffer, 2004, 2013). They call what they do "interdisciplinary": applying principles and methods of physics to subject matter traditionally investigated by other disciplines such as economics, psychology, sociology, political science, and geography (Stauffer, 2004, 2013). -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.7: By the summer of 1949, Stewart thought it was time for both he and the world to lose the quotation marks that usually accompanied the term "social physics." He approached a key post-war science manager and wellknown scientist in his own right, Warren Weaver, head of the Division of Natural Sciences of the Rockefeller Foundation, for funding to develop social physics as a proper social science. Shannon and Weaver (1949) had published that same year The Mathematical Theory of Communication, which became a central text of the early post-war period, linking science, mathematics, computing machines and society and according to Edwards (1996: 203), enabling a "complete statistical analysis of human social activity." -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.7: But it was all a bit too much for Weaver, who wrote to him in 1953:

To search for isomorphisms between social phenomena and physical phenomena is indeed an interesting idea. The real question, however, is whether or not it is a rewarding idea. It is interesting to suppose that there may be entities, social values, which play in social experience the same roles played by different forms of physical energy ... But it is hard for me to sense how one can usefully assign quantitative measures to any signicantly wide range of "values" in the social field. And when you link together such things as meaning, feeling, authority, and decision-making, this sounds to me like a very heterogeneous mixture.

-- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.7: Predictably Warntz’s conception of macrogeography was uncompromisingly monistic. Warntz was fond of repeating his own choice phrases, and there was no phrase he repeated more often than "social science ... and physical science are but mutually related isomorphic examples of one generalized logic" (Warntz, 1957: 422, fn. 1). That was the strength of macrogeography; it embodied the "one generalized logic." That logic was of a single discipline: physics. It meant geography becoming like physics. And if a discipline failed to do so, as geography patently had, then it would suffer; it had suffered. That’s why a "rumpus" was necessary. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.8: Although Warntz coined the specialized term macrogeography for his approach, it was nothing other than social physics. The name macrogeography served only a rhetorical function of making the project palatable to geographers, adding nothing substantively that wasn’t already contained within Stewart’s original formulation. But the name did resonate with, and in part was picked up by, other practitioners of spatial analysis who also emerged in the mid-to-late 1950s both inside and outside geography. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.10: Seemingly, macrogeography really was what the Ivies wanted, with Warntz’s work representing qualities of "originality," "erudition," and "brilliant scholarship." In the end it didn’t work out, with geography never returning to Harvard after all, and Warntz resigning his position three years after he became Director (see Chrisman, 2006, for an excellent history of the Harvard lab and Warntz’s role within it). What Warntz did achieve, however, was to prepare the ground of geography for Big Data, providing models of spatial analysis, stressing the importance of powerful computing machines, and championing the belief that sooner or later the entire social field could be turned into numbers. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.10: The strategic positions of graphics and geometry become even more clearly defined, while concomitantly the distinction between cartography and spatial mathematics decreases. (Warntz, 1977 [1967]: 5) -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.10: The engine that drives social physics is big data: the newly ubiquitous digital data that is becoming available about all aspects of human life. By using these data to build a predictive, computational theory of human behavior, we can hope to engineer better social systems. (MIT Media Lab, 2014: n.p.) -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.10: Warntz’s belief that numeracy held the key to spatial problem-solving was yoked to his curiosity about spatial representation as a means both to test hypotheses and to realize solutions graphically. That "we now look upon maps not only as stores for spatially ordered information" but also as part of a three-segmented theoretical geography of description, classification, and prediction, complemented the efforts of the lab under Fisher, an architect interested in assessing how computer graphics would alter the conventions of thematic cartography. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.10: As Anselin and Rey (2012: 2211) write, the techniques associated with current spatial analysis and their subfield of spatial econometrics "has roots in regional economics and quantitative geography." Interestingly, this form of macrogeography – to understand the spatial patterning of Big Data – does not preclude attention to the micro (in fact, it presupposes recording the rich details of private life). -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.10: Radical geographers such as Harvey (1972) thought what dropped out were social relationships, power inequalities, and class conflict – for them, vital to understanding any kind of geography, large or small. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.10: And this predilection can be felt as the impulse of Big Data, as can be seen in the materials for the new social physics at the MIT Media Lab, "to build a predictive, computational theory of human behavior." -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014

p.11: By showing that Big Data is historical, we show the assumptions that were built into it, as well as the contestations around them. Big Data becomes no longer a black box, self-contained, sealed and impregnable, but is opened up, available for verbalist discussion and contestation. -- Highlighted aug 21, 2014