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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 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.


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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 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.

30 review for If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

  1. 5 out of 5

    Caren

    Absolutely fascinating! Historian Jill Lepore has put her scholarly research skills to use and brought out of the archives the history of an obscure company, Simulmatics, that was the forerunner for today's Silicon Valley start-ups. The young men who rule Silicon Valley may believe they are unique and that history is inconsequential to their goals, but Lepore is here to tell them otherwise. Founded in 1959 and bankrupt in just over a decade, Simulmatics used early computers to gather and analyze Absolutely fascinating! Historian Jill Lepore has put her scholarly research skills to use and brought out of the archives the history of an obscure company, Simulmatics, that was the forerunner for today's Silicon Valley start-ups. The young men who rule Silicon Valley may believe they are unique and that history is inconsequential to their goals, but Lepore is here to tell them otherwise. Founded in 1959 and bankrupt in just over a decade, Simulmatics used early computers to gather and analyze data in order to predict and channel human behavior. Early on, there were those who found what this company did immoral, but she details the actors who set the stage for the lack of government regulation even today. I loved her Epilogue in which she masterfully dispenses with the hubris and arrogant indifference to history of those young men in Silicon Valley. Here is a master at the top of her game! My thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for a digital ARC. Also thanks to Library Journal for their "day of dialog" for librarians and authors, through which I heard Jill Lepore talk about this book.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bruce Katz

    I confess: I have a brain crush on Ms Lepore. I enjoy her books, her articles in The New Yorker, and her new podcast, The Last Archive ("a show about how we know what we know and why it seems, lately, as if we don’t know anything at all"). If I could have coffee with any public intellectual, she'd be right at the top of the list. Her intelligence, wit, and breadth of knowledge are simply wonderful. "If Then," her latest book, is ostensibly the story of the Simulmatics Corporation. In fact, what i I confess: I have a brain crush on Ms Lepore. I enjoy her books, her articles in The New Yorker, and her new podcast, The Last Archive ("a show about how we know what we know and why it seems, lately, as if we don’t know anything at all"). If I could have coffee with any public intellectual, she'd be right at the top of the list. Her intelligence, wit, and breadth of knowledge are simply wonderful. "If Then," her latest book, is ostensibly the story of the Simulmatics Corporation. In fact, what it's really about is the birth of the world we inhabit today. Though hardly anyone remembers them today, Simulmatics was everywhere in mid-century America. They claimed credit for the election of John F. Kennedy. They secured countless contracts with private businesses and federal agencies, and even (as Lepore shows in some detail) were instrumental in formulating American strategy in the Vietnam War. They were geniuses and drunks, academics and admen, hubristic great promisers but poor deliverers, particularly bad as husbands, more than a little unbalanced. Their mission, as Lepore puts it, was nothing less than to invent a computer program designed to predict and manipulate human behavior, all sorts of human behavior, from buying a dishwasher to countering an insurgency to casting a vote. They called it the People Machine. The Simulmatics men (how clunky the name sounds to modern ears, but back then it probably sounded futuristic, like something from "The Jetsons" TV show -- which I suspect many readers of this review will have to Google) were convinced that every aspect of human behavior could be expressed precisely in mathematical terms and thus could be as predictable as any other natural process. Lepore shows us their lives and their times in this era of Mad Men with their chain-smoked cigarettes and ubiquitous cocktails, blinkered vision and collapsing marriages. The Simulmatics Era gave birth to our own age. The book begins with the first use of a computer, UNIVAC, to predict the outcome of a presidential election on live TV. It didn't go well, and the Why of it makes for a good story, with the added bonus of her captivating description of how newspapers reported election results before computers. But out of that misstep a new world was born in which data became ever more refined and precise and ever more central to critically important currents in our lives, particularly in the menage a trois between marketing, politics, and computers. Lepore notes, the 1935 Manhattan phone book listed ten public relations firms. By the mid-50s there were more than 700. Politicians had always been packaged and marketed, but that all reached a whole other level beginning in the '50s and '60s. Democrat Adlai Stevenson ran his campaigns as an intellectual, believing he could address American voters with intelligence and rational discourse rather than lower himself to something as demeaning as TV advertisements -- a medium used to sell coffee, soap, and cigarettes, not something as serious as the office of the President of the United States . His Republican opponent, Dwight Eisenhower, however, was more pragmatic. He recognized the impact of 30-second ads that could put out a message quickly and efficiently to millions of viewers and could even be designed specifically for particular markets. To handle this part of his campaign, Ike hired the ad man who was to later write the immortal words, "M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand." This was the culture in which Simulmatics was birthed. These "Computermen," admen, and quantifiers came from the best American universities. They were smart and awfully sure of themselves and their genius. Their vision was, needless to say, less than perfect (though many of them were, in fact, geniuses). As Lepore says with characteristic wry economy, they were "mid-century white liberals in an era when white liberals were not expected to understand people who weren't white or liberal," and "they did not consider the intelligence of woman to be intelligence; they did not consider a female understanding of human behavior to be knowledge." There was, in fact, a great deal these men couldn't see or understand. "If Then" is simultaneously a history of Simulmatics, a portrait of the time -- the second half of the twentieth century -- and an exploration of how we got where we are. Of the spread of and growing reliance on technology that ran side-by-side with mounting distrust of technology and its impact on culture and democracy. Of newspapers struggling to compete with new means of communication. It looks too at the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement and the backlash it engendered, and the anti-war movement. Of the short-lived idea of something called the National Data Center that would bring information about Americans that was currently stored in countless organizations and offices, all together in one place where it could be easily accessed. (The NDC idea may have been short-lived, but as we know, it came back -- to stay and grow.) Of growing links between elite universities and the Department of Defense. Of a technology that grew, infiltrating more and more of our lives, with virtually no government oversight, no protection of privacy. The book covers a lot of ground, too much to summarize here.One thing that really struck me: how the Simulmatics men convinced the Department of Defense to send them to Vietnam so they could conduct interviews about a place whose culture and history they knew nothing about, interviews in which the Vietnamese translators changed the questions they in fact asked and the answers that were given. One of the key figures in the endeavor was a man named Walter Slote, a man with no qualifications for the job and not enough self-awareness to admit it. The cost, in dollars and deaths, was awful. Vietnamese men women, and children were dying, starving, being shot, bombed, burned, and napalmed. American soldiers were being shipped home in boxes, coffins, and bags. And the U.S. government was paying an Upper West Side Freudian analyst to explain that the Vietnamese, as a people, had Oedipal issues. The story of Simulmatics is the story of Facebook and Google, Cambridge Analytics and AI. It is a story we may be learning too late. Lepore writes in language that is representative of the sadness and anger that propel much of "If Then" and define our times: In twenty-first-century Silicon Valley, the meaninglessness of the past and the uselessness of history became articles of faith, gleefully performed arrogance. "The only thing that matters is the future," said the Google and Uber self-driving car designer Anthony Levandowski in 2018. "I don't even know why we study history. It's entertaining, I guess -- the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn't really matter. You don't need to know history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow." Simulmatics closed its doors in 1970, and its principals went on to other things. But their legacy! Lepore lays it out very clearly: the scientists of this long-vanished American corporation helped build the machine in which humanity would, by the twenty-first century, find itself trapped and tormented: stripped bare, driven to distraction, deprived of its senses, interrupted, exploited, directed, connected and disconnected, bought and sold, alienated and coerced, confused, misinformed, and even govern. They never meant to hurt anyone.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Marks54

    This book could have easily been subtitled as “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Prequel” - or something similar, like “The Internet Behaving Badly, The Prequel”. Jill Lepore provides a history of the Simulmatics Corp. which went into business to use data analysis to forecast the results of political campaigns and elections, so that candidates could learn about their electorate in detail on key issues and then fashion predictions about the results of speeches and other interventions. Get it This book could have easily been subtitled as “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Prequel” - or something similar, like “The Internet Behaving Badly, The Prequel”. Jill Lepore provides a history of the Simulmatics Corp. which went into business to use data analysis to forecast the results of political campaigns and elections, so that candidates could learn about their electorate in detail on key issues and then fashion predictions about the results of speeches and other interventions. Get it? Use computer analyzed data to advantage and for a fee. This activity could potentially be expanded to a range of other activities, such as pacification programs in Vietnam, riot prediction and prevention in Vietnam, and even what types of products customers are likely to want and then purchase. Sounds promising, only these days were talk about the Internet, Big Data, and the broad tool kit of “Data Analytics”. Professor Lepore tells the story of some enterprising behavioral scientists who worked on government related research projects in the Cold War era and then sought to apply their skills to serve other clients. The intent was to eliminate the guess work out of working with larger social groups and thus improve the results of new program initiatives and new products. The promise of the computer loomed large at the time, the work was engaging, and there was even potential for monetary rewards. A number of really extraordinary scholars were looped into this effort and Simulmatics seemed to be on the verge of defining key parts of American life in the Kennedy Administration. For books of the times, think “The Ugly American” and for movies think “Dr. Strangelove” and “Fail Safe”. This is the Cold War America before Vietnam, about which much was written on organization men, hidden persuaders, and other catch phrases. The principal characters in the book also come across as highly driven but also highly eccentric - not that different from the profiles of many more recent high technology pioneers. Things did not work out as planned and Simulmatics did not become a legendary firm, as the FAANG companies have. In trying to figure out the train wreck, there appear to be multiple causes. A first issue was data - especially finding sufficient quantities of the right types and at reasonable expense. There were other issues as well. A second problem is that academics, including enterprising ones, are not always very handy or concerned with the operational details of projects. To have much of a chance for success, the firm’s projects needed much more funding and scale. A third problem was one of theory. The presumption of these projects (and lots of projects today) is that the facts will speak for themselves. That has never been the case, such that when an analysis is completed, determining what it means and what to do about results is unclear. Solving this problem involves working with actual decision makers and actually understanding some really complex statistical techniques, of which regression analysis is just a beginning. The details of prediction / simulation models matter. A fourth problem was competition. The analytic knowledge and capabilities were widely enough disbursed and more than a few firms had some datasets that could prove valuable. High margins were not likely to be sustainable. Finally, in retrospect it is clear that a well functioning network of linked computers was necessary and that particular data centers were not going to be successful. This includes the power of the computers as well, and nobody was talking about “Moore’s Law” back in the 1950s and 1960s. The technology was not up to the task; the time was not right. This story is interesting on its own terms but I especially like how Professor Lepore ties together the Simulmatics story with the subsequent development of the Internet and the tech boom that is still reshaping the world today. A key part of the story is the growth of public sentiment against Simulmatics and its analytic ambitions in the course of its work with DoD during the Vietnam war. It is fascinating how these public concerns newer quite went away, although they were somewhat attenuated, and have recently re-emerges with concerns about the growing and unchecked power of the FAANG firms, the integrity of US elections, and the loss of personal data primacy. There is a clear continuity between Simulmatics and the present and Professor Lepore is effective at elaborating it. In reading the book, I wondered if there were any parallel stories that developed along with the story of Simulmatics. What comes to mind is the story of the “Whiz Kids”, profiled by John Byrne in a 1983 book, who worked with the military in WW2 to apply techniques of what became operations research and then applied it to large industrial firms (Ford) with mixed results. These stories would come together under Robert McNamara in Vietnam. I am glad Professor Lepore is so prolific and look forward to her books.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Avid

    I have a great deal of respect for jill lepore. I’ve read two other books she wrote, and I definitely agree with her position on the current state of affairs in america. This book, on the history of the simulatics corporation, was boring. I kept waiting for the hook, but it just kept droning on about this company which is loosely tied to the dawn of ARPANET (the earliest internet), and some crossover between the players and concepts of simulmatics and of ARPA. But there was really nothing compel I have a great deal of respect for jill lepore. I’ve read two other books she wrote, and I definitely agree with her position on the current state of affairs in america. This book, on the history of the simulatics corporation, was boring. I kept waiting for the hook, but it just kept droning on about this company which is loosely tied to the dawn of ARPANET (the earliest internet), and some crossover between the players and concepts of simulmatics and of ARPA. But there was really nothing compelling or interesting about the history of simulmatics corp, including its unweildy name. Maybe some gossipy tidbits about the founders’ failed marriages - who cares? In the final chapter, there is a bit of synthesis, a thread that runs between the first 310 pages and the point we find ourselves at today with predictive data being used in politics and marketing and business development. It was mildly interesting, but not enough to justify the bore that went before. If I didn’t have so much respect for Ms. Lepore and the high quality of her writing and research, this would have been a 2-star review.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    This traces the rise and fall of Simulmatics Corp., a fascinating slice of political, sociological, and computational history that I had never heard of. Which is interesting because I know a few things about all three sectors, but this data science startup, launched in the 1950s and bankrupt by the end of the '60s, was a new piece of the puzzle for me. And it really is, literally a piece of a lot of bigger things—algorithms, advertising, the big elections of the 1960s, efforts to quantify the Vi This traces the rise and fall of Simulmatics Corp., a fascinating slice of political, sociological, and computational history that I had never heard of. Which is interesting because I know a few things about all three sectors, but this data science startup, launched in the 1950s and bankrupt by the end of the '60s, was a new piece of the puzzle for me. And it really is, literally a piece of a lot of bigger things—algorithms, advertising, the big elections of the 1960s, efforts to quantify the Vietnam War and race riots, and the genealogy of big data and Cambridge Analytica, among other aspects. Very, very interesting and engaging.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tanuj Solanki

    Proof that American tech solutionism has always quickly arrived at behaviour change as one of its objectives. At the end, Lepore has you believe that Facebook-Amazon-Netflix-Google is the outcome of a way of looking at the world that preceded these companies by decades. The book carries a sense of loss with regards to how tech solutionism, despite being sustained by government dollar, escaped the government's oversight (and became its own government, if you like). Lepore traces this to one of th Proof that American tech solutionism has always quickly arrived at behaviour change as one of its objectives. At the end, Lepore has you believe that Facebook-Amazon-Netflix-Google is the outcome of a way of looking at the world that preceded these companies by decades. The book carries a sense of loss with regards to how tech solutionism, despite being sustained by government dollar, escaped the government's oversight (and became its own government, if you like). Lepore traces this to one of the many beginnings, inviting us to find answers in where it all went wrong. If, then, long ago, Simulmatics had not undertaken this work, it would have been done by someone else. But if, then, someone else had done it, it might have been done differently.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    Jill Lepore is one of the most interesting historians working today. If Then chronicles a period in our history that has become a forgotten footnote in most ways, but which underpins almost everything that has led to the world we now live in. Just when we start to think some ideas are "new" someone turns over a page, a rock, a leaf and reveals that, no, this idea began much longer ago than we remembered. Highly recommended.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Raghu

    The US media hailed the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign as the one that began the era of social media in political campaigns. Obama’s team deployed multiple social networking applications like Twitter and Facebook as part of their campaign outreach. These applications became a vehicle to raise money and target voters at a micro-level to get out the vote. Social media became a powerful medium to counter smear campaigns. It enabled Obama to topple the Clinton challenge in the primaries and then J The US media hailed the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign as the one that began the era of social media in political campaigns. Obama’s team deployed multiple social networking applications like Twitter and Facebook as part of their campaign outreach. These applications became a vehicle to raise money and target voters at a micro-level to get out the vote. Social media became a powerful medium to counter smear campaigns. It enabled Obama to topple the Clinton challenge in the primaries and then John McCain in the presidential election. Eight years later, Donald Trump won in 2016 against all predictions of a comfortable win for Hillary Clinton. It shocked the Democrats, and they laid the blame on Russian hackers and a British political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica. What was Cambridge Analytica’s crime? It harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of over fifty million users, making it one of the largest data heist in Facebook’s history. It let Cambridge Analytica mine the private social media activity of these American citizens. With algorithms developed at Cambridge Analytica, they helped the Trump campaign in 2016. Like Obama in 2008, Cambridge Analytica claimed they helped Trump win. How accurate are the claims of the Obama campaign and Cambridge Analytica that their social media initiatives propelled their clients to victory? We cannot conclusively prove that social media outreach made a crucial difference. Other explanations could be equally valid. Perhaps Americans, tired of eight years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, were ready for a change. They may have voted for Obama even without the social media campaign. In 2016, we know that a majority of white conservatives, poor working-class men, and rural Americans voted for Trump. They may have found the eight years of Obama as inimical to their future and were ready to turn up in numbers and vote Trump to power. They could have felt they were facing an existential dilemma. The outreach of Cambridge Analytica may have been superfluous. However, in the minds of people, all the commotion about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook made social media a superpower in electioneering. Democrats started clamoring for keeping Facebook and Twitter in check so we can protect democracy and stop manipulating the minds of voters. Most people now believe there is a new, sinister turn of democracy since social media arrived on the scene. Jill Lepore, author of this book, says this is nothing new. Gathering large amounts of data on voters, storing them on computers, applying algorithms to predict voter behavior, and advising political campaigns is not new. The Kennedy campaign against Nixon used it in 1960! Back in 1954, in the early days of computers, Eugene Burdick and Harold Lasswell, two political scientists, studied the mathematics of mass persuasion. They tried to model the behavior of the American voter as a television-watching, shopping-cart pushing, Coke, or Pepsi drinking, Eisenhower-Nixon voter. In 1959, Ed Greenfield and Ithiel de Sola Pool co-founded a data science company called the Simulmatics Corporation. Its scientists had a grand, over-arching ambition of simulating human behavior and predicting the future. They wanted to achieve it by developing a computer program called ‘The People Machine’. It would work on a massive amount of data collected from a vast population. By running computer simulations on this data, Simulmatics wanted to predict election outcomes and forecast outcomes of wars. They hoped to predict race riots (it was the 1960s!), avert disasters, and affect consumer behavior. In short, they called it the ‘A-bomb of the social sciences’. The company’s first major project was to advise the Kennedy campaign in its 1960 bid for the presidency. Ithiel de Sola Pool and Bill McPhee, the chief data scientists of Simulmatics, collected data from a hundred thousand surveys of Gallup and Roper. They focused on data between 1952 and 1958 at an interval of two years. The voters in these surveys were divided into 480 voter types, such as Midwestern, rural, Protestant, female, and more. They sorted the questions in the surveys into ‘fifty issue attitudes’ that included election returns from each of those years. The goal was to use this dataset of voters and issues as a macroscope. They called this program the ‘People Machine’. We could ask it any question about a move that a candidate might make. It would reply with how voters would respond to such a move, down to the tiniest segment of the electorate, The 1960 election was a close one between Kennedy and Nixon. Race prejudice against Blacks and JFK’s Catholic religion were key issues. The People Machine advised JFK that he must confront the religious issue head-on. It might lose him some Protestant votes but gain Catholic and minority voters. It advised JFK to make a straightforward attack on race prejudice to get the Black vote. On the TV debates, Simulmatics prompted JFK to use his personable traits such as good looks, fervor, and humor to advantage. In November 1960, when JFK won narrowly by just about 18000 popular votes, Simulmatics claimed the People Machine made the difference in the JFK win. However, JFK’s close circle of advisers pointed out that the suggestions of ‘People Machine’ were commonplace political wisdom with the Kennedy team. But the publicity blitz ensured the People Machine got notoriety for getting JFK elected. Soon, questions arose about the dangers of so much of data collection to manipulate voters. What does it mean for democracy? What about privacy in an age of big data? Is information the actual power? The anxieties of today regarding social media were already echoing sixty years ago. Notwithstanding the skepticism of Simulmatics’ impact in the JFK election, the obsession with data and prediction persisted. Ithiel de Sola Pool, co-founder of Simulmatics, used his connections and got a major contract for his company from the Pentagon. It was to assess the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency efforts to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the South Vietnamese. After much effort, Simulmatics produced its assessments. But the Pentagon didn’t see substantial value in it and ended the contract. Simulmatics, however, persisted in its work by moving into the areas of counterinsurgency and the study of urban problems. They aimed to solve the ‘Black problem’ in American cities by building simulation models, called the Riot Prediction Machine. They tried to forecast possible urban riots in Harlem and Rochester, NY. The results were dubious here too. The company went bankrupt in 1970. With hindsight, one can say Simulmatics had only limited success in its ventures because the amount of data was insufficient. Besides, the computers were too slow for extensive simulation, and modeling of reality was incomplete. And then there was the fundamental problem of simulating human behavior and predicting the future based on this exercise! Despite the mixed results from Simulmatics, acquisition of vast amounts of data, its analysis, and making predictions continued. The Defense departments inherited the approach. Bob McNamara, Secretary of Defense, was a quantitative specialist from Harvard. His team collected vast amounts of data on the war in Vietnam. It included the number of troops, ships, planes, helicopters, the size of the population, the body count, and the death ratio of soldiers in combat. Even the density of the Vietnamese mind and the price of rice were gathered! One day in 1967, McNamara’s men fed all this data into their program on the giant computer in the Pentagon. Then they asked, ‘when will the US win in Vietnam?’. After humming and hawing for a long while, the computer output ‘The US won in 1965’! So much for simulating human behavior and the prediction of the Future! In early 1971, the US Army collected data and conducted surveillance on civil rights figures, anti-Vietnam war activists, and political dissidents. They stored the data on computers, treating American citizens as foreign combatants. The US Army seems to have done what the NSA did thirty years later. There was no Edward Snowden to expose it in the 1970s. But there was Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the truth on the Vietnam War with the Pentagon Papers. We would be mistaken if we conclude Simulmatics was a total failure. The company had many bright engineers and scientists. Its founders did pioneering things in using computers in the social sciences. They pioneered pattern detection and prediction in political campaigns. In advertising, they launched targeting consumers with customized messages. Fifty years on, the field of ‘predictive analysis’ today is in effect a rebranding of the methods used by Simulmatics. The field was worth a market size of $4.6 billion in 2017 and expected to grow to reach $12.4 billion by 2022. Ithiel de Sola Pool, as part of his work in Simulmatics, predicted the coming communication revolution. He foresaw information like tax returns, social security records, criminal and hospital records, and credit ratings being stored digitally and processed in the next few decades. Pool also envisaged computers communicating with one another over a vast international network. He said people could find out anything about anyone without leaving their desks in fifty years - i.e., by 2018! Pool was not alone in being prescient in the 1960s about such technology. Paul Baran, a computer scientist with the RAND Corporation, testified in the Congressional hearings of Cornelius Gallagher on Data Privacy. He predicted data would in the future get aggregated into ‘big data’ with or without the federal government. He explained computers would all be connected in future into a vast network of networks. So, it wouldn’t matter whether we hold data in one node or elsewhere across the country. Baran prophetically advised Congress to set up ethical guidelines, safeguards, and rules regarding ownership of data. It is important to identify who owns the data, the obligations of the holder, whether they can share it or sell it. It is amazing to see that Paul Baran was such a visionary in 1966. Though the book deals with the rise and fall of the Simulmatics Corporation, it includes historical accounts of the United States of the 1950s and 60s. It has brief profiles of Adlai Stevenson, Richard Nixon, and JFK as part of this narrative. Stevenson emerges as a decent, intellectual leader and politician while Nixon and JFK fare worse. They appear ruthless, crafty, and somewhat opportunistic politicians. The book covers the Vietnam war in some detail, along with the anti-war protests and demonstrations in the late 1960s. The civil rights movement and the race riots in US cities also find their due. I found the tales and descriptions of those times highly educational and fascinating. Author Jill Lepore closes the book with some profound observations about the arrogance of ignoring history and trumpeting how important the future is. Silicon Valley technocrats today talk about the irrelevance of history in technology. They believe the only thing that matters is the future. Jill Lepore says sharply that this is a cockeyed idea and not even original. She follows with, “it is a creaky, bankrupt Cold-War idea, an exhausted and discredited idea. Inventing the future has a history, decades-old, dilapidated. Simulmatics is its cautionary tale, a time-worn fable. Because tomorrow is not all that matters. Nor is technology, or the next president. What matters would be what remains, endures and cures”. I loved reading this gripping book and strongly recommend it for everyone interested in technology, history, social science, or behavioral science.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Katherine

    Fascinating, not just for the story it purports to tell. Also about Vietnam, women’s history and the 1950’s in general. I couldn’t put it down. Great reporting, reaching from government documents to unknown wives’ letters to their mothers.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Hadrian

    The history of a mid-20th century corporation called Simulmatics. Lepore makes it obvious why she found this subject to be of interest - she calls it "Cold War America's Cambridge Analytica". Simulmatic's management was a motley crew - advertisers from 5th Avenue, and social scientists from MIT. Their idealism and their willingness to break old rules and conventions invite Lepore to draw comparisons to the disruptors of Silicon Valley. Their work was first in election campaigns - in reaching out The history of a mid-20th century corporation called Simulmatics. Lepore makes it obvious why she found this subject to be of interest - she calls it "Cold War America's Cambridge Analytica". Simulmatic's management was a motley crew - advertisers from 5th Avenue, and social scientists from MIT. Their idealism and their willingness to break old rules and conventions invite Lepore to draw comparisons to the disruptors of Silicon Valley. Their work was first in election campaigns - in reaching out to voters and predicting vote totals - the ancestors to targetted advertising. Simulmatics grew involved in defense and attempted modeling of counterinsurgency strategy in Vietnam and for predicting the outbreaks of riots in the later 1960s. The firm faced public scrutiny and faced challenges that were far beyond their tools and methods - and went bust in the 1970s. It would be easy enough to reduce these figures to villainous caricatures but in reading through them, Lepore finds idealism that outpaced the technology that was available. Data science and predictive analytics is difficult enough still. And what else matters is the discussion that was raised - is it right to collect this much data? Is it right to collect such sweeping information about the general public, and what could it be used for? The questions, at least, were sound, and still we don't have answers for those now.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Samantha

    This leaned more on politics than it did on technology, which isn't what I was expecting, but it's still a fascinating look into the rise and fall of a company I admittedly didn't know anything about. Simulmatics started in the 1950s and used data analysis to simulate human behavior and in turn predict the outcome of political elections. It's your Facebook algorithms and 538 analytics long before they ever existed. Jill Lepore does an excellent deep dive into the company's history, as well as th This leaned more on politics than it did on technology, which isn't what I was expecting, but it's still a fascinating look into the rise and fall of a company I admittedly didn't know anything about. Simulmatics started in the 1950s and used data analysis to simulate human behavior and in turn predict the outcome of political elections. It's your Facebook algorithms and 538 analytics long before they ever existed. Jill Lepore does an excellent deep dive into the company's history, as well as the election candidates' actions, and the combination of her expert research and compelling, timely topic make this an engaging read. Would make a nice complement to The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Tamara

    3.5***. I love Jill Lepore. She is one of my favorite historians, and I very much enjoyed this book. There were parts that were absolutely riveting and some parts that were rather slow. I thoroughly enjoyed the history (of course), but I felt like skimming some of the more personal information about the men running Simulmatics and their private lives. I was looking for a more pointed conclusion about the impact of this "mind reading machine", but the end seemed to skirt the tie in to the Trump e 3.5***. I love Jill Lepore. She is one of my favorite historians, and I very much enjoyed this book. There were parts that were absolutely riveting and some parts that were rather slow. I thoroughly enjoyed the history (of course), but I felt like skimming some of the more personal information about the men running Simulmatics and their private lives. I was looking for a more pointed conclusion about the impact of this "mind reading machine", but the end seemed to skirt the tie in to the Trump election and the ramifications dealing with infringement of individual privacy. Much of this book was thought provoking especially in light of the latest efforts at censorship by social media corporations.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    Fascinating. This book would be a great book club selection.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Terry Slaven

    This is a history of the origins of what we now call “predictive analytics.” It is a rather disjointed history. The first hundred or so pages discuss, in a jumbled fashion, the dramatis personae of the story: a core of men drawn from business and academia who found common cause in promoting the presidential candidacies of Adlai Stevenson. They vowed to use the infant tools of computers and data collection to boost the election chances of the next Democrat to run for president (and, not insignifi This is a history of the origins of what we now call “predictive analytics.” It is a rather disjointed history. The first hundred or so pages discuss, in a jumbled fashion, the dramatis personae of the story: a core of men drawn from business and academia who found common cause in promoting the presidential candidacies of Adlai Stevenson. They vowed to use the infant tools of computers and data collection to boost the election chances of the next Democrat to run for president (and, not insignificantly, to use those tools to make money) by identifying the voter groups necessary to achieve an election victory and the messages needed to attract them. They called their enterprise “Simulmatics” and they sought consulting business from corporations and government contracts. Theirs was a rather fly-by-night operation (they owned no computer hardware and their intellectual property seems scant), and the company had a string of failures performing shoddy work that included selling the New York Times a system that crashed in the course of making real-time projection of election winners, modeling the likely spots for civil disturbances in the late 60’s, and devising strategies for winning the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam over the course of the war. Unsurprisingly, the company crashed and burned in the early 70’s, and its principals scattered. The story is moderately interesting, but overall merits just a footnote, not a 300 page exposition. Much research and scholarship went into the creation of this work, but really there is nothing other than imagination to tie these “pioneers” to the computer-dominated culture of today.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Antonio Skarica

    Absolutely fascinating and rather timely! A perfect example of why studying history matters. It reframed my view on a lot of these “modern” technologies. Also a very interesting overview of the political context of the 50s and the 60s. Probably the only area where the book misses the mark is some of the descriptions of political debates of the time, which are definitely relevant but don’t really serve the overall narrative.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Bowman Dickson

    Wow, not sure how a topic I’m DEEPLY interested in can be written about in a way that’s so boring. I have 80 pages left and not sure I’m going to finish. Its jsut too many names and unimportant details - I was expecting more of an interesting discussion about how predictions have altered our modern society and 3/4 of the way through we’ve progressed from 1960 to 1968. 2 starts because I enjoyed reading about jfk and his brush with predictive analytics especially as our presidential election shit Wow, not sure how a topic I’m DEEPLY interested in can be written about in a way that’s so boring. I have 80 pages left and not sure I’m going to finish. Its jsut too many names and unimportant details - I was expecting more of an interesting discussion about how predictions have altered our modern society and 3/4 of the way through we’ve progressed from 1960 to 1968. 2 starts because I enjoyed reading about jfk and his brush with predictive analytics especially as our presidential election shitstorm is happening!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Barry

    Much more a rough history of the political landscape of the 1950s and 60s than of Simulatics. Makes you think now and then but then obliterates any useful thoughts with a mound of random tangents and pieces of trivia. The actual history of Simulatics is probably a third or less of the book. Pretty disappointing.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Cgallozzi

    Listened via AudioBooks "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." George Santayana A history of the Simulmatics Corporation [begins Circa 1959] - the precursor of both FaceBook and Cambridge Analytica companies and their attendant technologies. These technologies would today know be known as Big Data, (Simulation, Predictive Modeling) and Artificial Intelligence. The history includes a description about how the technology piece-parts were combined into a technical system by a Listened via AudioBooks "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." George Santayana A history of the Simulmatics Corporation [begins Circa 1959] - the precursor of both FaceBook and Cambridge Analytica companies and their attendant technologies. These technologies would today know be known as Big Data, (Simulation, Predictive Modeling) and Artificial Intelligence. The history includes a description about how the technology piece-parts were combined into a technical system by a set of 'very smart people'. The technical system when combined with a set of business methods - would allow (then) sophisticated computer simulations of 'customer' responses to certain messages and strategies from the firm. Early customers involved political parties for elections beginning in the 1950's - where models breaking voters in 480 types and cross correlating voter response against various positions on selected issue blocks - allowed a 'simulation' of predicted response to a politician's policy on a certain subject (Race Relations, Immigration, etc.) Other customers involved the DoD - especially during the Vietnam War - with analysis supporting the "Strategic Hamlet (Pacification) Program". The analysis was flawed [from the Vietnamese peasant input] forward - and the Program itself was a failure. Instead of elevating technology and discounting history (History is Bunk crowd) - perhaps the 'whiz kids' at the DoD should have read the History of the First Vietnam War - when the French tried the same pacification model done in a similar manner - it was also a failure. A good history complete with technology (down memory lane) such as IBM 1401's, punchcard readers) - Government Agencies (ARPA, DARPA). Also an overview of the U.S. political situations doing the Vietnam War - McNamara's "Whiz Kids" and the elevation of technology to solve all problems in War. When coupled with Zuboff's "Surveillance Capitalism" and Nick Carr's "The Shallows" - all three paint a disturbing picture of the large scale technology adoption by the U.S. masses, complete with a narrative that elevates the technologies' capabilities, discounts the value of history - and seems to have 'no issue' with the major internet influencers manipulating users to stay 'on-line' longer and to continually receive receive reinforcing messages based on the her present algorithm. Given this it is not surprising that the general population is vulnerable to 'technology hucksters' - where technology x will solve all your problems. Longer term questions (considering the current state of the Internet) involve free-will and whether a democracy can survive without some regulation of the internet and its major players. The Internet and its major players did not create the polarization that exists within the United States - however they exacerbate the polarization within the U.S. - by using strategies that include supplying increases levels of content that has the effect of increasing the customer's emotional response (anger) - thereby decreasing the customer's rational ability to evaluate the particular Internet content. There is a need for Digital Literacy here. Should be of interest to those who follow books about implication of technology upon society and etc. Carl Gallozzi [email protected]

  19. 4 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    This may be an odd thing to say but I kind of wish this book had been more academic than popular. Lepore is a brilliant writer and storyteller, maybe the best in the field of history. I absolutely adored her last two books, These Truths and This America. This book tells a compelling story of a corporation that pioneered the morally ambiguous big data analysis that now dominates so much of our society and politics. However, I think she needed to advance a more rigorous historical argument rather This may be an odd thing to say but I kind of wish this book had been more academic than popular. Lepore is a brilliant writer and storyteller, maybe the best in the field of history. I absolutely adored her last two books, These Truths and This America. This book tells a compelling story of a corporation that pioneered the morally ambiguous big data analysis that now dominates so much of our society and politics. However, I think she needed to advance a more rigorous historical argument rather than just tell a good story and link it loosely to the present. Simulmatics was founded by a bunch of social scientists and oddball entrepreneurs in the late 1950s. It had a bit of a Mad Men feel to it, except math-y, so less cool; still lots of drinking, cheating, unresolved psychological issues, and the like. Simulmatics aimed to collect and code reams of data that would allow them to explain, and hopefully predict, things like what demographics will vote for what candidate under what conditions, who will buy what, how an insurgency can be defeated, or when an urban riot is likely to take place. Simulmatics' history tracks with that of America in the 60s; they were in a sense an extreme version of the hyper-rational, corporatist liberalism of the postwar era, which thought social science could solve almost any problem. This overconfident movement blundered into Vietnam (the greatest social science lab we've ever had, as one Simulmatics dude put it) and ran headlong into assaults from the New Left and the New Right, into a host of problems that data couldn't solve. They are a great little allegory for this era of American politics and life, and Lepore evokes their hubris and pathos brilliantly, as usual. Lepore's argument is more implied than stated, but it is basically that Simulmatics represents an early version of our handing the moral and analytical reins to algorithms and machines, something that has now arguably gone off the rails. Her book is a plea for humanistic knowledge, in the sense that there's no amount of data that could overcome the Vietnamese insurgency's willingness to suffer and die to achieve their goals; you have to know the history, the culture, the language, the context-specific feel of things. As a historian, I obviously agree with this. Lepore makes one interesting connection between the modern tech movement and the 1960s counterculture: both thought they were seeking to destroy an evil, brainless, and creativity-crushing establishment, both were heedless of the past, and in a way the tech bros were just continuing the work of "disintermediating" society to allow as much free interaction and expression as possible. That vision isn't looking so great in the age of Trump, polarization, Qanon, and unprecedented distrust in institutions. I would have liked this to be a more formal argument than a side remark though. Lepore is awesome for the way she digs up these odd little facets of history and makes great stories and insights out of them. I'd say she does that about 80% of the way here. If she wrote an academic article making a more rigorous argument to complement this book, I'd read it for sure. Still, recommended for those who are interested in the history of tech and/or of the 1960s.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Bookreporter.com Biography & Memoir

    Jill Lepore, a renowned Harvard professor and bestselling author, has written a biography of Simulmatics --- a corporation that, she argues, was “the missing link in the history of technology,” which “helped invent a future obsessed with the future, and yet unable to improve it.” The company, started in 1959 by computer geeks and men from Madison Avenue, initially harnessed data in the service of politics, though eventually it boasted a client list that included JFK, The New York Times and the De Jill Lepore, a renowned Harvard professor and bestselling author, has written a biography of Simulmatics --- a corporation that, she argues, was “the missing link in the history of technology,” which “helped invent a future obsessed with the future, and yet unable to improve it.” The company, started in 1959 by computer geeks and men from Madison Avenue, initially harnessed data in the service of politics, though eventually it boasted a client list that included JFK, The New York Times and the Department of Defense. Over its short history (the company went bankrupt in 1970), its powerful IBM computers used data to track --- and influence --- everything from elections to race riots, counterinsurgencies and consumers’ purchasing habits. Decades before Facebook, it tried to manipulate the beliefs of voters, consumers and entire countries, including Vietnam. And, like Mark Zuckerberg, its founders professed to believe that they were helping humanity. Lepore uses the company and its principals (Daniel Patrick Moynihan was on the payroll for a while) as an entry point to the 1960s, when computers, the internet and even email were breaking out of the confines of academia. Many of the issues facing society in those years, from protests over the Vietnam War to racial unrest and fears of government’s intrusion on individuals’ privacy, are seen through the prism of those Simulmatics executives. Ultimately, as its chief executive unraveled and clients complained of shoddy research and billing discrepancies, some of the principals went off to new ventures, leaving behind the shell of a once-influential company. While writing an article about polling in 2015, Lepore discovered a trove of documents at MIT, where several Simulmatics founders had taught, and began unraveling the threads of their story. It’s debatable if the individuals and their families who lived through the rise and fall of this company enhance the book’s narrative, but they are also stand-ins for families torn apart by a decade of protests, riots and political unrest. What makes IF THEN so powerful is the implicit analogy between the ’60s and today --- not just because of social upheavals, but because ordinary citizens are being manipulated now, as they were then, by the technology that affords its overseers the power of “perfect persuasion.” Reviewed by Lorraine W. Shanley

  21. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    OK, finished _If Then_ the night before last. Pressed for time this week, so at least wanted to get some initial impressions out there. Very much worth the investment of time and money. I even paid the higher sticker price of $9.99, though the price seems to have dripped and I am bombarded with adverts to buy the book every time I open the Kindle -- even though I have already bought (and now read) the book!. These adverts make me sad because I paid more than I should have :-( OK to the book! It w OK, finished _If Then_ the night before last. Pressed for time this week, so at least wanted to get some initial impressions out there. Very much worth the investment of time and money. I even paid the higher sticker price of $9.99, though the price seems to have dripped and I am bombarded with adverts to buy the book every time I open the Kindle -- even though I have already bought (and now read) the book!. These adverts make me sad because I paid more than I should have :-( OK to the book! It was well-written,an enjoyable read, interesting, and informative. As is her style, she joins the personal and the political in ways that add copious human interest and drive us (her readers) forward. We get to know the people in her histories, and _If Then_ is no exception. Full of drama and passion, her writing draws you in. Her main point, that the history of computing is relevant to the present moment is on point. We have been here before (albeit in an earlier iteration). Point very well-taken and important. Predictive analytics and AI in commerce, in government, and it electoral politics go back decades and now span generations. Her work is a contribution to understanding this. I thought _If Then_ was better than _These Truths_ as the work of a "public historian," which I found exasterpating at points (a bit too much good people on both sides for my taste) and way, way too long as an audiobook. I still have to say that _Joe Gould's Teeth_ was the best of the things I have read (in that case listened to) by her yet. A couple of final notes on my reaction to her work. For my money, she brings joy to my listening by reading her work herself and also joy to my reading with the massive discursive endnotes (really enhances the reading for nerds like me). Enjoyed a similar moment of personal bliss reading the endnotes from _Like War_ last few week. Very different styles of citation. She includes hyperlinks, but not to the extent of Singer and his co-author. Much of her evidence is from private correspondence (e-mails) with living sources, which she does use to good effect. Singer and co-author cite a lot of blogs (and other web-accessible resources), but they tend to stay away from the kind of evidence that is not easily verifiable.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Keely

    In 1959, a group of computer men, behavioral scientists and ad men founded Simulmatics, a pioneering data analytics company proposing to predict human behavior through computer modeling and simulation. They started by selling their services to political campaigns, first for the Kennedy presidential campaign in 1960. From there, they moved on to predictive analysis for advertising and corporations, real-time election analysis for the New York Times in 1962, contracting with the Department of Defe In 1959, a group of computer men, behavioral scientists and ad men founded Simulmatics, a pioneering data analytics company proposing to predict human behavior through computer modeling and simulation. They started by selling their services to political campaigns, first for the Kennedy presidential campaign in 1960. From there, they moved on to predictive analysis for advertising and corporations, real-time election analysis for the New York Times in 1962, contracting with the Department of Defense to conduct psychological warfare in Vietnam, and later, trying to predict race riots during the protests and social upheaval of the late sixties. Throughout its short life, Simulmatics tended to over-promise what it could deliver and conduct its research and analysis in naïve and sloppy ways. The company was bankrupt by 1970, a failure, and yet the visionaries at its core—most notably, Ithiel de Sola Pool—had managed to lay the groundwork for email, the internet, social media, and the ubiquitous data analytics that define twenty-first-century life. If Then is a fascinating study of a world-changing piece of history that I had never heard of before stumbling across Lepore’s excellent podcast, The Last Archive. It’s a thinky book—not one you’d want to take to the beach—but it’s worth the effort of engaging with. I especially liked how Lepore placed Simulmatics’ rise and fall within the larger context of all that was happening socially and technologically during “The Great Acceleration” of the sixties. She also does a great job of connecting it all to the data-intensive, fragmented world of 2020. I did think the book got a little too in the weeds during the chapters on Simulmatics’ dubious work in Vietnam. However, overall, I came away feeling like If Then takes an important critical look at some near-past history that has profoundly shaped every aspect of our lives today…for good and for ill.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Bemused BookBoy

    If Then is about the Simulmatics Corporation that operated in the United States from 1958 to 1970. The company is believed to be the original social sciences company that created many of the concepts that we are currently learning Facebook and Google rely on to run their businesses. I was not aware of this company’s existence and found this book to be a good overview of who they were, why they existed, and what lead to their demise. While I was reading this one I thought the first half of the boo If Then is about the Simulmatics Corporation that operated in the United States from 1958 to 1970. The company is believed to be the original social sciences company that created many of the concepts that we are currently learning Facebook and Google rely on to run their businesses. I was not aware of this company’s existence and found this book to be a good overview of who they were, why they existed, and what lead to their demise. While I was reading this one I thought the first half of the book was more a history lesson on U.S. domestic politics, with some mention of Simulmatics, but not a lot of detail about how they worked and what they did. The second half of the book really picks up steam, so much so, that you could skip the entire first half, especially if you are already pretty aware of those presidential elections. Simulmatics used polling and data to segment the population into groups and then take those data sets to run analysis and determine how people think alike and differently. Based on this research they were able to sell their services to politicians and companies to build campaigns. Some say that their work had a huge influence on the election of JFK. The book kind of blurs their impact. I thought this story was very good, but I wanted the book to go deeper into the company and the decisions that they made along the way. I realize there is not a lot of research left about the organization and how they operated, but I thought the expectation exceeded the text. If you have an interest in having a 1960s era understanding of what Facebook does, this is a nice book. ***

  24. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    I usually like Lepore's book, and it's not like I disliked this one, but I didn't like it as much as I thought I would. The story she tells, of a corp that attempts to model behavior using big data in the 1960s, is obviously relevant today. And there are disturbing sides to the story even if like me, you're a little callow about the retail political implications. The way it is used in Vietnam and then to track the chances for street protests during the Civil Rights era are enough to make me squir I usually like Lepore's book, and it's not like I disliked this one, but I didn't like it as much as I thought I would. The story she tells, of a corp that attempts to model behavior using big data in the 1960s, is obviously relevant today. And there are disturbing sides to the story even if like me, you're a little callow about the retail political implications. The way it is used in Vietnam and then to track the chances for street protests during the Civil Rights era are enough to make me squirm. But there was something sort of discordant here, that Simulmatics, the company in question, is so bad at what they do. It makes you wonder, if Lepore is making an argument that even today, with facebook or Cambridge Analytica, what matters is more that your results are seen as valid, not that they actually be accurate? I don't know. In her epilogue, Lepore is a little more direct about her reasons, but they don't get articulated in quite that way. She does seem opposed to data analytics for the way they don't account for humanity, I guess. In her last sentence, she writes about how instead "what matters is what remains, endures, cures." That last term, especially, is an intriguing one, but one that I don't think can be read back into the book, even after seeing her express it that way. This is a diverting side-trip into the 60s, but it feels like a diversion, not the main route.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Norman

    In her new book, IF THEN, Jill Lepore tells the story of how a little-know tech company called Simulmatics invented the future. It did this in two ways. First, by imagining and developing the ideas and programs that would later become the creeds and systems of Facebook, Google, and Microsoft--Big Tech. And second, by using data to predict human behavior. The Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959, engaged in collecting data and building models with "types" of people, toward the goal of predict In her new book, IF THEN, Jill Lepore tells the story of how a little-know tech company called Simulmatics invented the future. It did this in two ways. First, by imagining and developing the ideas and programs that would later become the creeds and systems of Facebook, Google, and Microsoft--Big Tech. And second, by using data to predict human behavior. The Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959, engaged in collecting data and building models with "types" of people, toward the goal of predicting probable human behavior--much like today's algorithms which recommend content and ads. Many will rightly see that this history is not an isolated story of the past, but that it is supremely relevant today in our tech-driven world. This is the story knowledge and information, its mid-twentieth century tectonic shift. A fundamental change occurred with the arrival of Simulmatics, and the effects have been unfolding ever since. Data science, big data, simulation, social science--all these buzzwords, all things that the Simulmatics Corporation boasted in. The result of these changes: Disruption. Disorientation. The Simulmatics Corporation bankrupted a decade after it began, but its vision lived on: The People Machine is ubiquitous.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sooz

    "Behavioural data science presents itself as if it had sprung out of nowhere or as if, like Athena, it had sprung from the head of Zeus". I have to admit, I was of that opinion. It seemed that 'all of this' ... algorithms to suggest what I personally might enjoy watching or reading next, targeted advertising, misinformation and manipulation of opinion and election tampering .... it all seemed to arise out of nowhere. When Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data to influence the 2016, it seemed lik "Behavioural data science presents itself as if it had sprung out of nowhere or as if, like Athena, it had sprung from the head of Zeus". I have to admit, I was of that opinion. It seemed that 'all of this' ... algorithms to suggest what I personally might enjoy watching or reading next, targeted advertising, misinformation and manipulation of opinion and election tampering .... it all seemed to arise out of nowhere. When Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data to influence the 2016, it seemed like something brand new. Something we had never witnessed before. This book has certainly alleviated me of that particular misconception. That 'all of this' had it's birth during the cold war was a surprise to me ... at least at first ... but the more I read about the U.S.'s actions during the cold war, the more I come to understand how ruthless it was in adapting that age-old excuse .... the ends justify the means I recently listened to a podcast about a cold war initiative funded by the C.I.A. at the Allen Institute (McGill University in Montreal, Canada) where shock therapy, L.S.D. and other techniques were used to try and create a reliable method of brainwashing. The If Then story is like the flip side of the same coin that created that nightmare of a program. The focus of If Then is summed up neatly in the second chapter: "Cold Warriors understood themselves as engaged in a battle over the future. To win that battle, they tried to turn a lot of things, including the study of human behaviour, into predictive sciences. The more dangerous the Cold War got, the more madly its scientists scrambled to foretell the future. And the more heedlessly and violently they cast aside the past, the knowledge of ages, the humanities,the study of the human condition: history, philosophy, literature." "heedlessly and violently" pursuing their goals ... this also perfectly sums up the MK Ultra experiments at the Allen Institute. If the Cold War period fascinates you -as it does me- I recommend both this book and the C.B.C. podcast 'Brainwashed'. This book is filled with revelatory information on the early attempts to influence consumers, voters, and policy, to predict the outcome of war, domestic race riots and other civil unrest. I could give dozens of examples of fascinating ideas the Simulmatics Corporation considered. Just about everything that has come to pass in the last twenty years had it's birth in the 60's with this think tank. For example: By 1960 Simulmatics employees were using the term 'social network' to describe the inter-connected mass communication system they foresaw when we all had access to what would become the internet. 1961, Simulmatics representatives made presentations to t.v. networks, movie studios, record labels and publishing houses offering a 'mass culture model' designed to predict hits and flops. The only reason this didn't come to fruition was the lack of comprehensive reliable data from the companies themselves. As early as 1963, future-thinkers were suggesting the establishment of a national data bank by the U.S. government that would combine records independently held by prisons, schools, and hospitals as well as social security and census boards. Those who understood where this was going, reported to Congress that "data would be aggregated, would become big data, with or without the federal government" and that -as computers became networked- the information would be available whether it was centrally located or not. What was needed, they argued, was the establishment of ethical guidelines and safeguards to ensure the rules. Congress was completely at a loss. They shelved the conversation. My personal favourite titbit is from 1967 when Simulmatics was working for the Defence Department, tasked to come of with 'winning strategies' for the U.S. war in Viet Nam. They entered all the data they had -not just on war statistics like kill rations- but on the country itself. The computer processed everything it had been given in order to answer the question posed to it: "When will the United States of America win the war?" It's response? "You won in 1965".

  27. 4 out of 5

    Brett Neese

    Wasn't what I was expecting, but that's a good thing. Jill Lepore brilliantly tells a fascinating and compelling political history through the lens of the Simulmatics Corporation. I am fairly well versed on history and philosophy of technology, so the issues she raises are certainly not foreign to me, but the history from this perspective certainly was. I enjoyed hearing the history of the 50's and 60's I was mostly already familiar with from an entirely new perspective, and the inclusion of quo Wasn't what I was expecting, but that's a good thing. Jill Lepore brilliantly tells a fascinating and compelling political history through the lens of the Simulmatics Corporation. I am fairly well versed on history and philosophy of technology, so the issues she raises are certainly not foreign to me, but the history from this perspective certainly was. I enjoyed hearing the history of the 50's and 60's I was mostly already familiar with from an entirely new perspective, and the inclusion of quotes from texts from that era challenged my notion of the context surrounding contemporary debates about technology and politics. I read the audiobook version, which she narrates herself, which is also a major plus for me, and the chapters of the audiobook were cut into digestible chunks of < 1 hour. Sometimes her "male voice" was a bit too strong, but it added some nice liveliness to the story that kept me engaged. Previously I had only listened to her podcast, but I will be sure to read more of her books in the future!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kim McGee

    3 1/2 stars Beginning in 1959 forward thinking people began to ask a key "what if" question. What if computers could predict how people would act based on algorithms? Then they asked what if they could use that information to influence people to act a certain way? Simulatics Corp. did just that with Kennedy's presidential campaign and later to disseminate information released about the unpopular Vietnam War. This group laid the groundwork for all the social media platforms and advertising . It in 3 1/2 stars Beginning in 1959 forward thinking people began to ask a key "what if" question. What if computers could predict how people would act based on algorithms? Then they asked what if they could use that information to influence people to act a certain way? Simulatics Corp. did just that with Kennedy's presidential campaign and later to disseminate information released about the unpopular Vietnam War. This group laid the groundwork for all the social media platforms and advertising . It includes a second story about the women behind the scene who , like the space program, were instrumental in the success of this company. Anyone who is interested in very early computing and promotion will be riveted. The author has a very easy going style and adds a human element making it an easy and enjoyable non-fiction read. My thanks to the publisher for the advance copy.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sam McCarthy

    A great story with compelling characters, beautifully told. Through the lens of the Simulmatics Corporation, Lepore writes a novel history of post-WWII liberalism and its perilous decline in the late 60s, mainly as a cause of Vietnam. It is undoubtedly interesting to see how Simulmatics intersects with some of the biggest figures and the most turbulent events of the era. But Lepore doesn’t do a phenomenal job of acknowledging that Simulmatics, ultimately, left very little impact on the world. The A great story with compelling characters, beautifully told. Through the lens of the Simulmatics Corporation, Lepore writes a novel history of post-WWII liberalism and its perilous decline in the late 60s, mainly as a cause of Vietnam. It is undoubtedly interesting to see how Simulmatics intersects with some of the biggest figures and the most turbulent events of the era. But Lepore doesn’t do a phenomenal job of acknowledging that Simulmatics, ultimately, left very little impact on the world. The fact that Silicon Valley replicated Simulmatics’ would-be utopian totalitarianism makes for a great story, but not necessarily a persuasive political argument, per se. Nevertheless, Lepore’s impassioned defense of liberalism, privacy, and the study of the past—all of which were shunned by Simulmatics and its modern-day offspring—makes for a stirring conclusion.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Miguel

    Lepore’s last book was a centuries spanning work of history cramming in the entirety of America that fell short of a work like ‘A People’s History of the US’. 'If Then' focuses on perhaps a decade long span of time in the heart of the cold war with the focus on a data analytics company that is far from common knowledge. The background and the telling of the Simulmatics Corporation almost felt like a Delillo or Pynchon novel in terms of the time and subject matter. It could have been a fictional Lepore’s last book was a centuries spanning work of history cramming in the entirety of America that fell short of a work like ‘A People’s History of the US’. 'If Then' focuses on perhaps a decade long span of time in the heart of the cold war with the focus on a data analytics company that is far from common knowledge. The background and the telling of the Simulmatics Corporation almost felt like a Delillo or Pynchon novel in terms of the time and subject matter. It could have been a fictional company (unlike its more familiar fellow traveler Rand Corporation) that fits naturally within that time and the people involved from attempting to help predict election outcomes to war scenarios in Vietnam. Well told and expertly weaved into the time it covers, the book made me want to delve into Lepore's back catalog even more.

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