Critical Mass (How one thing leads to another)
Critical Mass, is an interesting book that posits the thesis that there may be a "physics of people" The author, Phillip Ball is a very gifted and intelligent individual who is as comfortable discussing phase changes in complex systems as he is discussing the views of Hobbes and Locke.
In critical mass, Ball articulates that we may be getting closer to be able to predict the responses or paths of large groups of people and or cultures. He is careful not to put the thesis forward to strongly. This choice was good.
Attaining a metric or science of people using a reductionist approach like physics would be ambitious on the best of days. Ball does introduce lots of interesting past attempts at the "science" of people in the collective sense, including concepts ranging from the Leviathan, to emergence as a function of feedback, the dynamics of traffic (autonomous rule based agents), Adam Smith and economics, Critical states and finally Small world networks.
The areas touched on are well researched, but interesting to bring together none the less. Many dangerous things have happened in the past when "science" is supposedly used to understand people. For most science is then applied "technology" and bad things happen. Whether it is the rational "science" of divine right, eugenics, or Marxism, the concepts of people as being deterministic, naturally invites people in power to manipulate the rules to determine an end. This is dangerous and has always lead to bad things happening as people are swayed by the "logic" of some argument.
One leaves this book with a strong faith in laissez faire when it comes to political and cultural institutions. The Hippocratic oath of "first do no harm" seems to apply not just on the scale of the individual but on the group as well. The important thing to learn at this point is that there is no science, or governing mechanism of people in a collective sense.
In constrained environments or for a given time and place people do behave as expected, whether it be a Skinner experiment or the marketers product positioning. Critical mass as a book is OK and a bit vague in terms of really resolving anything. It is an interesting read from it sheer breadth and depth and one can appreciate the authors scope and knowledge in selecting the content and thus allowing the reader to reach a conclusion. Unfortunately, the collected parts of the book are more than the whole. Critical Mass suffers the irony of being grossly mis-titled, when in the end it is a series of fascinating fragments waiting for cohesion.