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'Bursts': Can Human Behavior Be Predicted And Controlled?

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I am a scientist, which means that I believe that most natural phenomena can be understood, quantified, predicted, and eventually controlled. No one would find any of these goals questionable.

What, however, if I replace natural phenomena with humans? It would read, humans can be understood, quantified, predicted and eventually controlled. Now, that is a scary thought!

There is a little secret that we, scientists, do not like to talk about: The scientific revolution stalled at the gates of natural sciences, bypassing us, humans. Indeed, we can predict where an electron will go but we cannot foresee and stop economic crises; we can turn a gene on or off but we have no control over wars and battles; we can send a robot to Mars, but we are lost if asked to predict phenomena we would think we should know the most about, which is the actions of our fellow humans. As a result, today we can find out more about Jupiter than about the guy who sits next to us.

True, there is a fundamental difference between our ability to explore human behavior, or study bacteria or electrons. Bacteria don't get annoyed at you when you put them under a microscope. The moon will not sue you for landing a spacecraft on its face. Electrons are not subject to privacy laws. Yet, none of us want to submit to the invasive inquiry to which we subject our bacteria, our planets, or our electrons--aiming to know everything about us, all the time. In Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do, I try to convince you that this is about to change, with profound consequences.

Indeed, today just about everything we do leaves digital breadcrumbs in some database. Our e-mails are preserved in the log files of our e-mail provider; when, where, and what we shop for, our taste and our ability to pay for it is catalogued by our credit card provider; our face and fashion is remembered by countless surveillance cameras installed everywhere, from shopping malls to street corners. While we often choose not to think about it, the truth is that we are under multiple microscopes and our life, with minute resolution, can be pieced together from these mushrooming databases. And the measurements my research group and other scientists have performed on some of these datasets show something rather unexpected: they not only track our past, but they reveal our future as well. Indeed, by studying the communication and movement of millions of individuals through the electronic records they left behind, like mobile phone records, we have found a huge degree of predictability of individual behavior. The measurements told us that to those familiar with our past, our future acts should rarely be a surprise.

As we follow our impulses and daily priorities, we rarely realize that we submit ourselves to mathematically precise laws that describe our activities. The patterns are by no means new--they drove human behavior for centuries, dominating everything from wars to Einstein's correspondence. Our ability to collect these patterns is new, however, allowing us to extract the laws that govern some of our most intimate moments. And as we did that, we learned that everything we do, we do in bursts--brief periods of intensive activity followed by long periods of nothingness. These bursts are so essential to human nature that trying to avoid them is not only foolish, but futile as well.

But can we engineer bursts? This is what I attempted to do recently with brsts.com--engaging others into a predictive burst. The premise of the experiment is simple. The whole book, "Bursts," is available on the site, just as it will appear in print. But each word is covered by a rectangle. Each user can 'adopt' a word, and at that moment all words adopted by others will become visible to her. So once 84,000 individuals have each adopted a word, roughly the number of words in the book, the whole book will become visible to the adopters. But any user can unlock the whole book within days by guessing a sufficient number of covered words, as each successful guess offers additional points that helps the user reveal further content.

Two weeks into the release Brsts.com, eleven users have collected enough points to unlock and read the whole book. Yet, to our surprise, no one bothered to do that. Instead, the players continued their guessing game. Some have amassed over five million points, sufficient to unlock and read the book fifty times over! The predictive game behind bursts became more addictive than reading.

Today we obsess over Facebook, Myspace and Twitter, hungrily devouring our friends' thoughts, ideas and images. Imagine a new generation of social networking sites that offer not our past, but peek into our future. Forget "What's on your mind?" and focus instead on events to come. If you find Twitter and Facebook absorbing, Bursts has a message for you: the possibility of predicting the future could be far more addictive.


When he is not busy predicting your whereabouts, Albert-László Barabási does research on networks and complex systems. He predicts that his new book, Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do will hit your bookstore around April 29.

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