Q&A: Albert-László Barabási

Marco Visscher | April/May 2010 issue

 
As the director of the Center for Complex Network Sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Hungarian physicist Albert-László Barabási researches what he calls “the hidden pattern behind everything we do.” Barabási’s Bursts (Dutton), out in April, explains that our behavior may not be so random after all.
 
What exactly is a “burst”?
“A burst is a sudden escalation in our activity pattern, characterized by an excessive focus on a certain type of task at the exclusion of all other responsibilities. It is like the thunder of drums in a Beethoven masterpiece, punctuated by the pleasing sound of the violins that preceded and follow them.”
Where can we look for bursts?
“We discovered bursts in the email patterns of individuals. Indeed, if we follow the sequence of emails sent by any person, we will not see a random and uniform stream of messages that most previous theories of human communication predict. We will witness instead short periods of intensive email activity, when the users fire out several, occasionally dozens of emails, followed by long periods of e-silence. Soon, we started to see similar bursts in all human activities that we could collect data for, from phone calls to the financial transactions of stock brokers, from Wikipedia edits to visits to the library.”
What is so surprising about that?
“What surprised us was that all these bursty patterns followed the same precise mathematical law. We were seeing a peculiar rhythm of life that none of the individuals generating these bursts was aware of. At first, it appeared that bursts occur randomly. But we soon learned that they have a simple origin: prioritizing. Indeed, whether we do it consciously or subconsciously, we prioritize, often many times each day. Each time people prioritize their tasks, their behavior becomes bursty. If, however, we let dice run our lives, all signatures of burstiness disappear.”
How does the idea of bursts change the way we look at society?
“We often think of society as a smooth machinery with its internal clock, where events proceed more or less seamlessly along their tracks. In reality, most events follow a bursty pattern, which, if understood, will change the way we approach them and the way we get things done. Bursts is not a self-help book, but I believe that if we understand the patterns behind the rhythms of our daily activities, we are in much better position to be in tune with them and eventually exercise control over them. It has certainly changed the way I deal with the people I work with. If we are stuck, the remedy comes through revisiting our priorities, rather than placing blame.”
 

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Q&A: Albert-László Barabási

Marco Visscher | April/May 2010 issue

 
As the director of the Center for Complex Network Sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Hungarian physicist Albert-László Barabási researches what he calls “the hidden pattern behind everything we do.” Barabási’s Bursts (Dutton), out in April, explains that our behavior may not be so random after all.
 
What exactly is a “burst”?
“A burst is a sudden escalation in our activity pattern, characterized by an excessive focus on a certain type of task at the exclusion of all other responsibilities. It is like the thunder of drums in a Beethoven masterpiece, punctuated by the pleasing sound of the violins that preceded and follow them.”
Where can we look for bursts?
“We discovered bursts in the email patterns of individuals. Indeed, if we follow the sequence of emails sent by any person, we will not see a random and uniform stream of messages that most previous theories of human communication predict. We will witness instead short periods of intensive email activity, when the users fire out several, occasionally dozens of emails, followed by long periods of e-silence. Soon, we started to see similar bursts in all human activities that we could collect data for, from phone calls to the financial transactions of stock brokers, from Wikipedia edits to visits to the library.”
What is so surprising about that?
“What surprised us was that all these bursty patterns followed the same precise mathematical law. We were seeing a peculiar rhythm of life that none of the individuals generating these bursts was aware of. At first, it appeared that bursts occur randomly. But we soon learned that they have a simple origin: prioritizing. Indeed, whether we do it consciously or subconsciously, we prioritize, often many times each day. Each time people prioritize their tasks, their behavior becomes bursty. If, however, we let dice run our lives, all signatures of burstiness disappear.”
How does the idea of bursts change the way we look at society?
“We often think of society as a smooth machinery with its internal clock, where events proceed more or less seamlessly along their tracks. In reality, most events follow a bursty pattern, which, if understood, will change the way we approach them and the way we get things done. Bursts is not a self-help book, but I believe that if we understand the patterns behind the rhythms of our daily activities, we are in much better position to be in tune with them and eventually exercise control over them. It has certainly changed the way I deal with the people I work with. If we are stuck, the remedy comes through revisiting our priorities, rather than placing blame.”
 

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