In this colorful yet disjointed history, New Yorker writer Lepore (These Truths) traces present-day obsessions with data mining and predictive analytics to a Cold War–era market research firm. Founded by advertising executive Edward Greenfield and MIT political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool in 1959, the Simulmatics Corporation aimed to “estimat probable human behavior by the use of human technology.” After initially struggling to compete with Madison Avenue agencies and their large, in-house data sets, Simulmatics focused on emerging computer technologies and tapped Pool’s government connections to land Defense Department contracts during the Vietnam War. By 1965, the company had an office in Saigon and growing influence within the U.S. government, despite how overpriced and sloppy some officials found its work to be. (At one point, Simulmatics inaccurately forecast that a riot would break out at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night—a prediction that would be impossible to make even with today’s technology.) Though the company shuttered in 1970, Lepore contends, its influence can still be felt in the impact of Silicon Valley on consumer trends and partisan politics. Though Lepore vividly describes Simulmatics’s key players and the politics of the era, she doesn’t fully distinguish between the company’s self-produced hype and its actual accomplishments, and the book’s chronology is confusing. This sporadically entertaining chronicle doesn’t quite live up to its potential. (Sept.)
In this page-turning, eye-opening history, Jill Lepore reveals the Cold War roots of the tech-saturated present, in a thrilling tale that moves from the campaigns of Eisenhower and Kennedy to ivied think tanks, Madison Avenue ad firms, and the hamlets of Vietnam. Told with verve, grace, and humanity, If Then is an essential, sobering story for understanding our times.
Lepore writes history like a poet. In If Then she yet again binds lyrical storytelling to meticulous archival research to tell a gigantic story from our past.
Data science, Jill Lepore reminds us in this brilliant book, has a past, and she tells it through the engrossing story of Simulmatics, the tiny, long-forgotten company that helped invent our data-obsessed world, in which prediction is seemingly the only knowledge that matters. A captivating, deeply incisive work.
[Lepore] pulls no punches in criticizing the folly of trying to understand human behavior via algorithm, and the corrosive consequences of trying to hack democracy. The result is . . . a perceptive work of historically informed dissent.
Hilarious, scathing and sobering – what you might get if you crossed Mad Men with Theranos.
In another fast-paced narrative, Jill Lepore brilliantly uncovers the history of the Simulmatics Corporation, which launched the volatile mix of computing, politics, and personal behavior that now divides our nation, feeds on private information, and weakens the strength of our democratic institutions.
Everything Jill Lepore writes is distinguished by intelligence, eloquence, and fresh insight. If Then is that, and even more: It’s absolutely fascinating, excavating a piece of little-known American corporate history that reveals a huge amount about the way we live today and the companies that define the modern era.
Jill Lepore reveals how this forgotten company invented the data-weapons of the future. If Then is simultaneously gripping and absolutely terrifying.
A person can’t help but feel inspired by the riveting intelligence and joyful curiosity of Jill Lepore. Knowing that there is a mind like hers in the world is a hope-inducing thing.
In this latest book, historian Lepore (These Truths) focuses on the rise and fall of the Simulmatics Corporation and the impact it had on politics and society. Founded in 1959 by a group of prominent social scientists, the company's mission was to automate the simulation of human behavior. Simulmatics provided data for John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, but when the New York Times hired the company to help with its 1962 election coverage, the results were in "disorganized shambles." Lepore effectively tells how, after being rejected by Lyndon B. Johnson for his 1964 campaign, Simulmatics worked with the U.S. Department of Defense and opened an office in Saigon. The company later became involved with Great Society programs and the Kerner Commission. The author profiles many fascinating characters who were involved with Simulmatics, including MIT's Ithiel De Sola Pool and Berkeley political scientist and writer Eugene Burdick. Although Simulmatics collapsed and went bankrupt in 1970, Lepore considers it to be the "missing link in the history of technology." Its legacy is the Internet, social networks, and firms like Cambridge Analytica. VERDICT Scholars of American history and technology will appreciate the extensive research that went into this book, while general readers will be swept up by the novelistic scope of the story.—Thomas Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA
An in-depth history of “Cold War America’s Cambridge Analytica.”
A staff writer for the New Yorker and Harvard professor, Lepore knows how to spin out a winning historical study. Here, she dives deep into matters that have seldom attracted scholarly attention, delivering a story that hinges on the discovery, in the late 1950s, that computers and languages such as FORTRAN, based on an endless series of “IF/THEN” statements, “an infinity of outcomes,” could be used to gauge and influence voter preferences. The Simulmatics Corporation melded the worlds of Mad Menadvertising and high-tech geekery of the UNIVAC set, leveraging what would eventually be called artificial intelligence to sway campaigns and elections. Among other achievements, the company “claimed credit for having gotten John F. Kennedy elected president.” Lepore’s narrative features some unlikely players, such as the novelist Eugene Burdick of The Ugly Americanfame, who began his professional life as a political scientist—though one who really wanted to be James Bond. The other principals of Simulmatics were cynical, hard-drinking men whose marriages dissolved with distressing regularity but who believed in the unerring power of numbers. Founded in 1959, Simulmatics went bankrupt just a decade later, as Lepore deftly shows, its faith in numbers led it to plot bombing runs and body counts in Vietnam, “waging a war by way of computer-run data analysis and modeling.” The company even attempted to do probabilistic forecasts of when and where race riots would occur. That was all heady stuff back in the age of Robert McNamara and the RAND Corporation, but it didn’t play well toward the end. Still, as Lepore also convincingly demonstrates, the work of Simulmatics paved the way for later manipulators of psychology and public opinion such as Facebook. As she writes of those heirs, the founders of Simulmatics “would have understood, even if they could only dream about its gargantuan quantity of data or the ability to run simulations in real time, dynamically.”
A fascinating, expertly guided exploration of a little-known corner of the recent past.