In this interview, I talk with Albert-László Barabási, author of Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do.
Barabási has been on the forefront of research into network theory. His first book Linked was about the connections. His new book Bursts is about the dynamics of how we live. He says we need to move from a model which emphasizes averages and random behavior to one that is represented by short periods of intense activity followed by longer lulls. Applications have already been seen in the diagnosis of depression and the movement of money.
[L]et me clarify that there is a fundamental difference between what we do and how predictable we are. When it comes to things we do–like the distances we travel, the numbers of emails we send, or the number of calls we make–we encounter power laws, which means that some individuals are significantly more active than others. The send more messages; they travel farther. This also means that outliers are normal–we expect to have a few individuals…who cover hundreds or even thousands of miles on a regular basis
But when it comes to the predictability of our actions, to our surprise power laws are replaced by Gaussians. This means that whether you limit your life to a two-mile neighborhood or drive dozens of miles each day, take a fast train to work or even commute via airplane, you are just as predictable as everyone else. And once Gaussians dominates the problem, outliers are forbidden, just as bursts are never found in Poisson's dice-driven universe. Or two-mile-tall folks ambling down the street are unheard of. Despite the many differences between us, when it came to our whereabouts we are all equally predictable, and the unforgiving law of statics forbids the existence of individuals ho somehow buck this trend.