Psychohistory in the real world

Tom James @ 28-07-2009

crowdResearchers at Indiana University believe that it may be possible to create a real-life version of Isaac Asimov’s concept of psychohistory:

Much as meteorologists predict the path and intensity of hurricanes, Indiana University’s Alessandro Vespignani believes we will one day predict with unprecedented foresight, specificity and scale such things as the economic and social effects of billions of new Internet users in China and India, or the exact location and number of airline flights to cancel around the world in order to halt the spread of a pandemic.

Psychohistory as described by Isaac Asimov holds that “while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events.”

This certainly seems similar to the ideas of reality mining discussed here:

Vespignani writes that advances in complex networks theory and modeling, along with access to new data, will enable humans to achieve true predictive power in areas never before imagined. This capability will be realized as the one wild card in the mix — the social behavior of large aggregates of humans — becomes more definable through progress in data gathering, new informatics tools and increases in computational power.

It is an exciting direction, and offers the possibility of a black-swan style technological breakthrough. With improved data, through things like spimes and ubiquitous computing, combined with improved data processing techniques and communications there exists the possibility for a new and powerful way of studying, monitoring, and even controlling social and technological developments with precision.

[via Next Big Future][image from woodleywonderworks on flickr]


An epidemic of fear – or, why terrorism and witchcraft are surprisingly similar

Paul Raven @ 16-09-2008

panic buttonLiving in a constant state of fear is not good for your health on an individual level. But scale up to the level of entire towns, states or countries, and the problem can be exacerbated by the psychology of mob behaviour. [image by krystenn]

According to documents from the Department of Homeland Security, not only is it possible for fear of terrorism to create a contagious psychosomatic epidemic, but it’s also already happened a couple of times – in the US and elsewhere.

Now, that may not be surprising in and of itself. But take a look at some of the comment reactions on this BoingBoing post about a riot in the Congo that was triggered by accusations of witchcraft; quite a few people find it ridiculous that anyone could be scared of witchcraft at all, let alone riot because of it.

And in our world, that’s probably true… but what we fear is a function of the culture we live in. The people of the Congo can blame their witchdoctors and priests for their irrational fears; I suspect our Western paranoia comes from an entirely different sort of story-teller.


A plague on both your guilds – researching epidemics in World of Warcraft

Paul Raven @ 21-08-2007

World of Warcraft adventure partyWe’ve heard about the street finding its own use for things, but here’s an example of the opposite occurring: epidemiological researchers are in discussion with the makers of World of Warcraft to arrange a for a contagious virtual disease to sweep the multiplayer world, so that they can observe how people react to various social countermeasures like quarantining. Brings a whole new meaning to bugs in the code. [Image by Rance Costa]