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If Then
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If Then
How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future
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Longlisted • National Book Award (Nonfiction) Best Books of 2020 • Financial Times Best Books of Fall 2020: O, The Oprah Magazine, The Observer, Boston.com Most Anticipated Books of Fall...
Longlisted • National Book Award (Nonfiction) Best Books of 2020 • Financial Times Best Books of Fall 2020: O, The Oprah Magazine, The Observer, Boston.com Most Anticipated Books of Fall...
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  • Longlisted • National Book Award (Nonfiction)
    Best Books of 2020 • Financial Times
    Best Books of Fall 2020: O, The Oprah Magazine, The Observer, Boston.com
    Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2020: TIME

    A revelatory account of the Cold War origins of the data-mad, algorithmic twenty-first century, from the author of the acclaimed international bestseller These Truths.

    The Simulmatics Corporation, launched during the Cold War, mined data, targeted voters, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge—decades before Facebook, Google, and Cambridge Analytica. Jill Lepore, best-selling author of These Truths, came across the company's papers in MIT's archives and set out to tell this forgotten history, the long-lost backstory to the methods, and the arrogance, of Silicon Valley.

    Founded in 1959 by some of the nation's leading social scientists—"the best and the brightest, fatally brilliant, Icaruses with wings of feathers and wax, flying to the sun"—Simulmatics proposed to predict and manipulate the future by way of the computer simulation of human behavior. In summers, with their wives and children in tow, the company's scientists met on the beach in Long Island under a geodesic, honeycombed dome, where they built a "People Machine" that aimed to model everything from buying a dishwasher to counterinsurgency to casting a vote. Deploying their "People Machine" from New York, Washington, Cambridge, and even Saigon, Simulmatics' clients included the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign, the New York Times, the Department of Defense, and dozens of major manufacturers: Simulmatics had a hand in everything from political races to the Vietnam War to the Johnson administration's ill-fated attempt to predict race riots. The company's collapse was almost as rapid as its ascent, a collapse that involved failed marriages, a suspicious death, and bankruptcy. Exposed for false claims, and even accused of war crimes, it closed its doors in 1970 and all but vanished. Until Lepore came across the records of its remains.

    The scientists of Simulmatics believed they had invented "the A-bomb of the social sciences." They did not predict that it would take decades to detonate, like a long-buried grenade. But, in the early years of the twenty-first century, that bomb did detonate, creating a world in which corporations collect data and model behavior and target messages about the most ordinary of decisions, leaving people all over the world, long before the global pandemic, crushed by feelings of helplessness. This history has a past; If Then is its cautionary tale.

About the Author-

  • Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, her many books include the international bestseller These Truths and This America.

Reviews-

  • Library Journal

    May 1, 2020

    Harvard professor, New Yorker staff writer, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, and author of international best sellers like This America, Lepore shows how Silicon's success--and our current obsession with data--is rooted in the work of the Simulmatics Corporation. Founded in 1959, Simulmatics sought to predict and even control human behavior via computer, mining data, and manipulating news and voters.

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from May 15, 2020
    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 Men advertising 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 American fame, 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.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    June 1, 2020
    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.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from July 1, 2020
    The rise and fall of a mostly forgotten early mover in the predictive analytics industry makes for a tale thick with hubris and junk social science, and a grim foreshadowing of our present reality. Founded in 1959 by social scientists and ad men enthralled by the possibility that computerized simulations of human behavior might be used to predict the future, the Simulmatics Corporation held meetings in a geodesic dome and used punch-card mainframes to help the Democratic Party target crucial segments of the electorate. Despite landing lucrative government contracts to deploy behavioral science in Vietnam and combat race riots at home, the company by 1970 would be bankrupt, its goodwill dissipated by underwhelming deliverables and unhelpful associations with the military-industrial complex. Best-selling Lepore (This America, 2019; These Truths, 2018) does not demonize the company's exuberant but flawed founders, among them Ithiel de Sola Pool, the MIT scholar whose theories would later be heartily embraced by Silicon Valley. But she 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 not so much a cautionary tale for today's Big Data companies, for which the allure of knowing the future may be hopelessly irresistible, but rather a perceptive work of historically informed dissent.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

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