Regular readers of this site may have noticed a large number of posts on this site credited to “Social Physicist” – the Twitter handle of Kyle Findlay (and yes, you could be forgiven for confusing our names). Kyle works for a group within one of the world’s largest market research companies, which he describes as a “mini-think tank” with the purpose of exposing people to new ways of thinking and doing things. Having enjoyed his Twitter stream for the past year or so, I got in touch with Kyle Findlay to ask him about the practice of “social physics.” He talked to me by instant message from from his home in Cape Town, South Africa.
Klint Finley: What, as a “social physicist,” do you actually do?
Kyle Findlay: Well, at the moment I’m on my own in this “field,” if you can call it that. It just seems like the best description of what I do and what interests me so hopefully it sticks.
Basically, my interest is in understanding how people act as groups. As emergent entities that have their own (hopefully) predictable and describable topological forms. That’s the lofty idea anyway. And the tools of chaos theory, systems theory, network theory, physics, mathematics, etc. help describe this.
Do you have a background in physical sciences?
None at all. I studied “business science” at the University of Cape Town. My first job was for a company with a strong academic background, started by a professor of religion and a statistician. They used a 5-dimensional catastrophe cusp model to describe people’s relationships with ideas.
The moment I was exposed to this thinking, something clicked. A lot of contradictions that I saw in the world around me were resolved. Ever since I have had an insatiable desire to understand these areas. Which led me to interact with experts in many disciplines from neuroscience to economics, math, physics, AI, ecology, biology, etc. Every field has a piece of the puzzle. I am lucky to work in an environment that gives me free rein to indulge my passion.
Sketch: Fractal Zoom by Kyle Findlay
Do you think what you do is different from systems thinking or social cybernetics?
They are definitely components. Systems thinking is a broad umbrella term. Cybernetics definitely helps us to understand and describe the patterns and multi-dimensional shapes that society creates. But I think that you need the hard sciences like math and physics to really get at the heart of it. Which is why I am feverishly trying to catch up on many years of missing education.
Do you think there are any dangers in applying models designed for physical systems to human behavior?
Yes there are – you will always be at least slightly wrong. There are a lot of parallels between the way people act in groups and other types of particles. But you also have the same problems of predictability in complex systems: sensitivity to initial conditions, 3-body problem, etc. It’s kind of the paradox of it all, something I am still trying to come to grips with.
What’s the most surprising insight you’ve discovered since you started studying this?
Everything is the same and everything is just information. The universal nature of nature is astounding. You see the familiar signs everywhere: from the atomic through to the cosmic level. It makes me think that there really is only one true science or line of inquiry and that most specialised fields are just facets of this. The more fields I delve into, the more commonalities I discover. It’s become par for the course for me now I think. But in the beginning, it really blew my mind.
Sketch: Man’s Part in the System by Kyle Findlay
Have you been able to apply this stuff in any interesting ways? For example, I know you’ve prepared presentations on network theory and power laws for work.
Those have gone down really well within the silos I work in. People have really been amazed when I’ve shown them these kinds of things. It gets their minds racing.
I’m also doing some work applying systems theory to sports science, which can really benefit from changing the way they view the human body. Music is another area that makes a lot more sense from this point of view.
One of my favourites is understanding how human attention works and how to synchronise communication so that it becomes internalized, but that is very theoretical and could be seen as slightly Machiavellian so I won’t go there.
Also, I’ve been having some interesting chats with a neuroscientist around decision-making, attention, etc. The applications are really endless, it’s just where you choose to focus you own attention.
How would you suggest someone interested get started studying social physics?
Well, considering I’m not 100% sure what falls into the bounds of the field myself, it’s difficult to say. There’s no university course for it as far as I know. I would say that you need to have an intense desire to understand why people do what they do. And a slightly perverse fascination with the human condition. Looking at life from a systems perspective is a good start. Understand that patterns are formed internally, that change is the only constant. You can then use tools like network theory, noise analysis, entropy, etc. to understand these ebbs and flows.
Are you familiar with Stephen Wolfram? He wrote a book called a New Kind of Science.
Yes, I know of Stephen Wolfram from his software and Wolfram Alpha. I’ve been intimidated by the size of his book, though. I struggle justifying devoting so much time to one book, which probably says more about me…
Yeah, I haven’t picked it up yet either.
He sounds like a really bright guy. I think I watched a talk of his at the Singularity Summit or somewhere similar, but to be honest, can’t remember much of it.
Most of my reading is in the scientific literature, interspersed with a good book or graphic novel.
Speaking of which, do you know of any works of fiction that demonstrate the principles you’re interested in?
Good question. Not too many spring to mind. A classic is Flatland by Edwin Abbot – the quintessential metaphor for perceiving multiple dimensions. The guy wrote a book about perceiving multiple dimensions in the 1800s! Impressive.
A recent book that blew my mind was Accelerando by Charles Stross. He has a great worldview but his insights were more in terms of extrapolating the directions technology is going in.
Yourself? Any suggestions?
Snow Crash seems like it might be relevant. Or the film Run Lola Run.
I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read Snow Crash. Why do you say Run Lola Run? Time? Sensitivity to initial conditions?
Yep. It shows how tiny changes in a system can have far-ranging results. A starting delay of only a couple of seconds radically changes things for several characters in the different timelines.
True. I’m not going to mention Back to the Future 2 or The Butterfly Effect (although I just did).
Have you heard of the 1990 film, Mindwalk?
It was co-written by Fritjof Capra and consists of several characters discussing the nature of the world from a systems perspective. I have to admit that i fell asleep during it… but I was very tired.
That sounds pretty amazing though.
Yeah – good credentials right there.
My personal favourites are any films or books that push society’s limits. Subversive materials rule in my book (no pun intended). Anything that helps me push back my pre-conceptions and shatter my expectations. They were great at that in the 70s, in music, film and literature. Probably a side-effect of the 60s experimentations. I’m a big fan of exploitation flicks.
Let’s see, what else… I haven’t read Alan Moore’s Big Numbers. But Moore seems to have a pretty good grasp on complexity, judging by Watchmen and From Hell.
I haven’t read Big Numbers either. What elements do you think he draws on in those books?
Watchmen itself seems to be very mathematical – the use of symmetry and so on. In terms of themes, maybe it doesn’t touch on this stuff much, apart from some of Dr. Manhattan’s comments.
Yeah, he definitely weaves a non-linear richness into his tales that is admirable. The way he weaves the various threads of a story together.
I forget why I thought From Hell was relevant. Maybe it’s not.
Also, he calls himself a chaos magician. Watching an interview with him a while back, I could actually identify with a lot of what he was saying.
I wasn’t going to go there, but… have you studying chaos magic or the occult at all?
No I haven’t. That Moore interview is probably as far as I have gone. It’s just not a direction I feel I can go in and remain “grounded” if I want other researchers to take me seriously. But I can definitely see how he got there.
Well, I have and I think you’re better off studying natural sciences, systems, and complexity IMHO.
[Laughs] Cool, thanks for the advice.
But the book Techgnosis by Erik Davis examines a lot of parallels between information theory and cybernetics and mysticism and the occult. I think it stands up pretty well, even if you’re not interested in magic.
I think you have to have a certain detachment to take a step back and observe the world. And when you start seeing everything as inter-related and part of the same thread it becomes easier to start imagining that you can define the tapestry with your perceptions. I guess I don’t want to open that Pandora’s Box. In my view it untethers you. Again, talking from an inexperienced point of view in this area.
Davis’ book sounds interesting though.
From an interview with Manuel DeLanda (who you might be interested in) -conducted by Davis, incidentally:
As Deleuze says, “Always keep a piece of fresh land with you at all times.” Always keep a little spot where you can go back to sleep after a day of destratification. Always keep a small piece of territory, otherwise you’ll go nuts.
Yeah exactly. I find that the concepts I deal with in my day job challenge me enough, and that’s all based on empirically grounded ‘fact’ in the scientific literature.
Most people work very hard to maintain their reality, but I do think that you have to have an affinity towards detachment. A certain world view that is open to having your illusions shattered and actually enjoying that experience. And the cutting edge of science delivers those experiences in spades.
Kyle on Twitter