If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

by Jill Lepore

Hardcover, 2020


Liveright (2020), Edition: 1, 432 pages


"A brilliant, 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, founded in 1959, mined data, targeted voters, accelerated news, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge--decades before Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Cambridge Analytica. Silicon Valley likes to imagine it has no past but the scientists of Simulmatics are the long-dead grandfathers of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Borrowing from psychological warfare, they used computers to predict and direct human behavior, deploying their "People Machine" from New York, Cambridge, and Saigon for clients that included John Kennedy's presidential campaign, the New York Times, Young & Rubicam, and, during the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense. Jill Lepore, distinguished Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, unearthed from the archives the almost unbelievable story of this long-vanished corporation, and of the women hidden behind it. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lepore argues, Simulmatics invented the future by building the machine in which the world now finds itself trapped and tormented, algorithm by algorithm"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member lisapeet
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
A very informative study on the infancy of computer research focusing on the first company in that area, Simulmatics Corporation. The book follows a wide array of the companies' founders and families over the years. The first major use of their data was by the Kennedy campaign to help him defeat
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Richard Nixon. However, their information was only as good as the data they were able to get (through interviews, surveys, etc.). so there will be a colossal failure in their trying to aide our government during the Vietnam War. The book is quite thought provoking about the evolution of computer use up through today.
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LibraryThing member kiparsky
Can't recommend. Lepore does not seem to have put in the time to understand the tech that she's writing about, or its implications in terms of "inventing the future", or the how very far it was from anything like "inventing the future". Simulmatics, from what she writes, does not seem like a
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particularly visionary enterprise. Instead it seems more like the Theranos of its time - a startup founded on some potentially legitimate and interesting ideas and charismatic leadership that absolutely failed to deliver on its technical promises, and probably never actually had the capacity to back up those promises, and which ultimately had little significance for anyone not directly involved.
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LibraryThing member Shrike58
This book is getting the highest possible rating, despite going off-topic at points, because of the importance of the story. I had actually heard of Simulatics before, in the context of the intelligence analysis follies of the Vietnam War, so I felt the need to read it sooner than later. It turns
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out that strategic analysis was not really the original mission of the company; advertising executive Ed Greenfield was fascinated with the potential of computer simulation in regards to salesmanship, and what he really wanted to sell to the American public was an Adlai Stevenson presidency. Adlai didn't bite, but JFK did, and the firm made a contribution to Kennedy's wafer-thin victory over Nixon; mostly in making a substantive argument that JFK really had to pursue the support of Black voters if he really wanted to have a chance.

Here's the problem, even at the time, thoughtful insiders suspected that this trial run of "big data" was ethically and morally dubious, and considering the performance of firms such as Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, this turns out to be prescient. It certainly prevented the firm from receiving a wider embrace in the political world; particularly after the Kennedy brothers soured on the self-promotion of the founders of the firm.

The next issue is that Greenfield and his merry men often seemed to be better at padding their expense accounts, rather than offering useful analysis. Part of this is a commentary on the limitations of the behavioral sciences of the time (a topic which Lepore describes with cold venom), and part is that these men might have thought that they were masters of universe (a precursor of Silicon Valley arrogance), but Greenfield could never collect enough resources to really make his vision work. Even before American debate over the value of the Vietnam War turned incandescent, damn few social-science practitioners were prepared to go to Saigon, and those that did seemed to be mediocrities.

In the end, the firm collapsed due to mismanagement, and basically wrecked Ed Greenfield's life. While the firm showed the way to the future, about the only person to come well out of the experience was the political scientist, and commentator on technology, Ithiel de Sola Pool, and even he probably wanted to live down his participation. Pool spent quality time dodging the hatred of anti-war protestors at MIT during the late '60s.

Besides being an examination of the roots of a controversial major industry, there is also a life and times quality about this book. Some readers are going to be uncomfortable with this, as Lepore writes with real anger about the inadequacies of period, particularly in regards to the irony of how a group of men who proposed to analyze human behavior couldn't even understand their own wives. There's a lot of sadness that acts as the mortar to the building blocks of this story. To Lepore, the glamor of the "New Frontier" was just toxic froth on roiling waters. If Lepore had the right angle, I'd enjoy seeing her write about Talcott Parsons and the vision of the social sciences being as predictive as actual science; in part, I received my undergraduate and graduate education from professors who still bore the scars of that experience.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
In the 1950s, long before Cambridge Analytica, the Simulmatics Corporation was founded with the hopes of using computers to collect demographic data and predict election outcomes. They fed different scenarios into their computer programs to see how they would impact elections, and offered campaign
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advice to politicians such as JFK based on those computer simulations. From there, they also realized that their technology had implications for the marketing and advertising industry. And then, even more controversially, they tried to use the same techniques to predict and sway the outcome of the Vietnam War.

I found this book both fascinating and disappointing. The history of the Simulmatics Corporation is fascinating, especially with the benefit of hindsight. Long before Silicon Valley or Facebook or Cambridge Analytica, they were already trying to create the future that we have now. The fact that we think we're doing something new by using computers to make predictions based on big data is Silicon Valley's hubris: we aren't doing anything that previous generations haven't failed at within living memory.

The book claims to be about Simulmatics, but really it's about one Simulmatics employee, Ithiel de Sola Pool. Pool was a lot of the brains behind Simulmatics, and long before the internet existed, he predicted search engines, email, social networks, and big data. He was one of Stewart Brand's main influences, and Brand is perhaps the most influential mind behind the early years of the internet. Pool's life was complicated - as a child of immigrants trying to get a government job under McCarthy, he had to prove his loyalty to America. He was behind a lot of the misguided data collection and psychological warfare efforts in Vietnam, and was reviled for his role there. I actually wish Lepore had focused more on Pool and less on Simulmatics.

The book was disappointing in its lack of focus. For a while, it felt like it was more about the politics of the Democratic Party and Adlai Stevenson than about the rise of big data. There are a lot of people who play very minor roles in the book, yet Lepore spends several pages painting word portraits of them and their backgrounds, only to completely abandon them a few pages later. She spends a lot of time talking about the lives of the wives of Simulmatics board members, and as much as I appreciate the attention paid to the women of the story, that detail doesn't actually have much to do with the matter at hand. In other words, I feel like the book would have really benefited from some heavy editing and better focus.
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LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
Wide-ranging 60s/70s behavioral sci ARPA history; amazing links to modern internet and big data issues; very interesting historical anecdotes and details.
LibraryThing member pierthinker
Everyone accepts that the Big Tech companies have a massive impact on society today and that this impact manifests itself most clearly in behaviour modification through social media. These companies achieve this impact through ubiquitous technology, primarily mobile phones, complex AI-driven
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so-called ‘algorithms’ that relentlessly select what to show you next, and ‘big data’, access to huge volumes of information about you and everyone else. It is generally believed that this technology was invented and developed from the 2010s onwards. This book from Jill Lepore sets out to debunk that idea.

After the Second World War we start to see the emergence of the commercial computing industry and the expansion of this technology into areas outside the purely military. Almost from the very start social and behavioural scientists saw an opportunity to use computers to analyse large volumes of data with the objectives of, firstly, provide reliable classifications of large numbers of people; secondly, using this data to predict the general responses of these people to particular events or stimuli; and, thirdly, to identify ways to affect the behaviour of these people. Of course, the first area to apply these ideas was in politics - analyse the electorate, understand what impact policies have on voting intentions and influence how those votes are cast. Although mistrusted by almost everyone, these early limited attempts were reasonably successful and laid down almost all the key principles that we understand today as making up ‘social media’ and how it operates.

Lepore follows the creation and short life of one company, Simulmatics, as it used ‘big data’ and ‘algorithms’ to analyse, predict and alter the behaviour of various groups of people to the benefit of its clients. The company, formed in the late 1950s, applied its behavioural science technology to advertising, presidential electioneering and, most disastrously, to the war effort in Vietnam, before bankruptcy wound the organisation up in the early 1970s.

In the 1960s there was a growing awareness of, and antipathy to, the use of this technology and some attempts were made to establish regulatory controls and limits around what ‘privacy’ meant and what could be done with ‘big data’. These failed because everyone was focused on the potential for misuse by government and only a few people, who were ignored, saw the potential for such misuse by commercial companies. So, when private companies started using these technologies to analyse and influence people for profit, there was no regulation to haul them back, and we are where we are.

Lepore’s book is interesting, surprising and eminently readable with good research. She has the ability to use well-selected anecdotes to emphasise her points and keep us interested.

I think this is an excellent history of technology and an important foundation to understand why behavioural science technology has got us into such a muddle and to indicate how we might get out of it.
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LibraryThing member plappen
It is reasonable to assert that attempts to predict, and manipulate, human behavior using computers is a recent phenomenon, started by companies like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. According to this book, such an assertion is also very wrong.

It was the early 1960's, the days of UNIVAC and ENIAC.
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A corporation called Simulmatics was part of John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. They were the first to use computer simulation and prediction to chop the US electorate into hundreds of categories. That way, they could test various campaign slogans and statements, to see how they would work. It led to much speculation about computers taking over America, and about office workers being fired by electronic bosses. In 1961, Simulmatics targeted segmented consumers with customized advertising messages.

In 1963, Simulmatics attempted to simulate a developing nation's entire economy, with a view toward halting socialism. The Vietnam War was raging, so, in 1965, Simulmatics opened an office in Saigon. Their intention was to do psychological research as a way to wage war with computer run data analysis (these were also days of Robert McNamara's "whiz kids" in the Pentagon). Back in America, in 1967 and 1968, the company attempted to build a machine to predict race riots. It went bankrupt soon after.

This a fascinating book that illuminates a lesser-known bit of American history. Attempts to predict human behavior, with computers, have gone on for many years, even by white liberals (like the employees of Simulmatics). This book is very highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member neurodrew
Behavioral scientists discover computer aided data analysis in the 1950's
Jill Lepore writes very well, and has an interesting but previously obscure story to tell. Simulmatics Corporation was founded to use computers to predict human responses to political and advertising messages, in 1959. The
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various characters involved were shady, and in one case, bipolar. They obtained contracts initially from politcal campaigns, and John Kennedy's win was tainted by its association with the computer analysis of voting preferences. The corporation became involved in Vietnam, opening an office in Saigon, to try to assess the effectiveness of propaganda. The effort was doomed by the inability of any of the reasearchers to speak Vietnamese, and the reliance on translators who did not accurately render the questionaires to Vietnamese, and were seen as part of the enemy. The corporation went bankrupt in 1970, and its leaders, particularly Ithiel de Sola Pool, were accused by the war protestors of being war criminals. Dr. Lepore describes the furor raised by the proposal for establishing a National Data Bank, a project pushed by Simulmatics, resisted by Congress, but now realized in the multitrillion points of personal data stored and manipulated by Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and other corporations. The descriptions and pictures of the punch cards, teletype terminals, and room-filling computers with speeds and memories a million times less powerful than an I-phone are fasicinating. Dr. Lepore had access to letters from wives and women employed by Simulmatics, and thoroughly examined the sexist nature of the times.
"For a long time, this stuff was known either as propaganda or as psychological warfare (the Nazi version was known as Weltanshauungskrieg, or worldview warfare), but after a swhile, people who worried about how that sounded started calling it the study of "mass communication."" (page 33)

[Ithiel de Sola Pool arguing for his security clearance in 1950 quoted Wendel Willkie] "Willkie once said, with reference to his own past, that anyone who is not a socialist at 20 has something wrong with his heart and any one who is still a socialist at 30 has something wrong with his head" (page 53)

"(The [U.S. Army] Signal Corps would retire its last pigeon in 1957)" (page 68)

[The election of 1960] "Kennedy's electoral margin of victory, 303 to 219, was wide, but the popular vote was close enough to lead to two recounts, efforts led by the Republican National Committee but not endorsed by Nixon, who said, privately, "Our country cannot afford the agony of a constitutional crisis -- and I damn well will not be a party to creating one just to become President or anything else." " (page 124)

"On election night, [The New York Times in 1904] it broadcast the results from its building in New York by way of searchlights that could be seen for thirty miles, as if the building itself had become a lighthouse. Steady light to the west meant a Republican victory in the presidential race, steady light to the east a Democratic one; flashing lights in different combinations broadcast the winners of congressional and gubernatorial races. That is what is meant by a news "flash." " (page 149)

"The Simulmatics Corporation is a relic of its time ... a casualty of midcentury American liberalism. But the People Machine [Simulmatics algorithm and database] was also hobbled by its time, by the technological limitations of its day: the 1960s threw sand in its gears. Data was scarce. Models were weak. Computers were slow. The machine faltered, and the men who built it could not repair it: the company's behavioral sicentists had very little business sense, its chief mathematician struggled with insanity, its computer scientist fell behind the latest research, it president drank to much, and nearly all their marriages were falling apart. 'They treat their wives like dirt, said Minnow McPhee. The machine sputtered, sparks flying, smoke rising, and ground to a halt, its light blinking, wildly, desperately, before going dark.
Simulmatics failed, but not before its scientists built a very early version of the machine in which humanity would in the early twenty-first century find itself trapped, a machine that applies the science of psychological warfare to the affairs of ordinary life, a machine that manipulates opinion, exploits attention, commodifies information, divides voters, fractures communities, alienates individuals, and undermines democracy." (pages 321 to 322)
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LibraryThing member rivkat
Lepore’s clever turns of phrase often rub me the wrong way, but this is a really interesting story about a forgotten data analysis company from the early days of computerization. It failed, but it was employed by major political campaigns and by the military in Vietnam before it did, and in a
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larger sense its mission succeeded. Connecting personal to professional lives, Lepore argues that its insistence on the knowledge of white men and the promise of data-enabled power to control others who were agitating for a share in governance was both what made it persuasive and what made it unable to see its own weaknesses. I also didn’t realize just how much of a huckster Ithiel de Sola Pool was. (A big one, though Lepore credits him with being right about what the internet could disrupt.)
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LibraryThing member Zare
To have book like this appearing in current times means that things have gone so deep and over the edge that they are [as far as I can see] unfortunately beyond repair. This is like reading about the civil wars and political violence decades after the event. History is like that, it tries to
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educate people using examples from the past but what can one do with the people acting as children who only want the shiny things and nothing else, people who dont want to enter the world of adults, people who only want to live forever young.


Author writes wonderfully. This is a huge book but I read it so fast like it was a novel (and believe me it is not, some passages do require re-readings because sheer information bursting from the pages). She wonderfully shows how low has society fallen from the 1960's up til now, how some things that would worry and infuriate people before like manipulating people for political votes, tailoring politician's stands so they get elected are now treated like everyday thing. Historical awareness of people dropped not 2 years back but barely a month or (what is exceedingly worrying) a week. People have become what politicians (and ruling part of society past and present) always said they were - clay to be molded as they see fit. As long as people are not willing to learn from the past, to be aware of the past and always just chase the shiny new things there is no future for us, we will always be on a windy plateau thrown from one to other side by forces that we surrendered ourselves to, unscrupulous and ambitious individuals. History is anchor, starting point forward.

If one follows how entire social dynamic engineering process started and evolved over the years, it makes me wonder what took place in the background of Simulmatics and its deals with government and corporations. This was after all period of deadly experiments like MKULTRA, dangerous experiments with heavy drugs (LSD) - are we truly to believe no work related to Simulmatics was used somewhere in the background by other people, other organizations. Makes your blood run cold does not it.

Book also shows how easy it is to fall and start using terror and intimidation to destroy those that people do not agree with (various student movements in the 1960s during anti-Vietnam-war and anti Simulmatics protests). How easy it is to lose control and in process destroy the ideals one fights for?

Only thing that I found unnecessary in this book is awkward inclusion of men/women relationship comments. I do not agree that what characterized Simulmatic's scientists was that they were "white liberals". They were totally socially inept people that lived only for their work - they are marked by all the traits and cliches that mark today's IT people with one difference they lived in the 1960s so did not actually walk around in flip flops, they wore suits and regularly shaved (and I know what I am talking about). But for all means and purposes they were "weirdos", some with extremely debilitating psychological issues. Geniuses in their fields, hard workers but ultimately inept socially - one of the reasons why not a single one of them managed to save their marriage (as far as I can see majority remained in contact with their kids, which is at least one positive thing). Isn't it interesting that those that had at least some social life (Eugene Burdick being one of them) were very against the company and what it wanted to do? For me it is not, because people from the outside know a techie-weirdo when they see them, are not deluded by almost religious fervor they place in their work and very rarely they want to have anything to do with them (unless they run the weirdos but in that case they might err in other way - Greenfield's case and his cheating adventures but hey CEO's are rarely monks but do-or-die daredevils that attract others to flock around them). And for the level of weirdness - just look at Pool's statement how people will live in bliss when served only the news they want to read. This can be only statement of someone completely alienated from the reality (because one needs to ask what is university than place to challenge our views and ideas - if one reads only what ones likes and agrees with what is the point? for every logical and sound minded individual this screams danger, but alas for those looking for mysteries statements like this makes sense (religion is religion no matter whom the person trusts in - ethereal beings or machine)).

When one looks at the women linked to Simulmatics I am not sure why author stresses their life was so hard (with exception of Greenfield's wife tragedy). They all had challenging marriages that is true, but as far as I can see they weren't beaten up or physically threatened (Minew Mcphee (wife of Bill McPhee, straight out mad man) being exception albeit she also managed to place her husband into institution so apparently she was very capable woman). They all managed to get other jobs (rarely any left Simulmatic's even when they found out what happens in the company and what they are actually working on) and had pretty good careers after Simulmatics went down (majority having contacts with those that later became popular politicians of today - Clintons, Obama, various defense ministers and members of national security councils; again that maximum number of social paths between people eh).

Also talking about modern IT as man-only industry today is ridiculous. Just look at CEOs, directors of various departments (legal, policy making and control) you will see there are women there sometimes even predominantly. And this is without mentioning thousands of highly capable female engineers that enter the industry every year.

Why author decided on this is something I cannot wrap my mind around. It is awkward, sometimes outright strange. In any case it does not deduct from the book overall.

All in all very interesting book, highly recommended to everyone who wants to see how technology can be dehumanizing to the extreme by using and manipulating the very human nature. Do no evil stand does not imply that good deeds are done. Humanity needs to be brought back but no longer as a statistics. It needs to be re-instituted as a highest value for anything that has to do with humanity.

Highly recommended.
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