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Book review of If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

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Seth Mnookin | NYT 

Book cover
Book cover of If Then – How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

In late December 1960, Harper’s Magazine hit the newsstands with a story by a freelancer named Thomas Morgan: John F Kennedy’s razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon the previous month had been orchestrated by a top-secret computer called the “People Machine.” This mysterious device, which had been invented by an equally mysterious company called the Simulmatics Corporation, had, according to Harper’s, concluded that taking a firm stand on civil rights and confronting anti-Catholic bigotry directly, both of which Kennedy did, would help the young senator from Massachusetts win the presidency.

In a period of rising anxiety about both communist brainwashing and automation, this was big news. The story of a “robot campaign strategist” analysing voter rolls and public opinion polls was picked up by media across the country. For a brief period, the scandal threatened to delegitimise Kennedy’s presidency before it had even begun.

But the story, it turned out, was little more than a hacky publicity stunt by a company propagandist: Within a few months, Morgan, who’d edited the very Simulmatics reports he’d described in his magazine story, had been given an ownership stake in the company to go along with his title of “information manager.” Therein lies the paradox at the heart of If Then,Jill Lepore’s fascinating but flawed new book about the company she says “invented the future”: Her attempt to use Simulmatics as a parable for and precursor to “the data-mad and near-totalitarian 21st century” is hamstrung by the fact that it failed at almost everything it tried to do — oftentimes spectacularly so.

Simulmatics, which opened up shop in 1959 and ceased operations in 1970, was the brainchild of a backslapping, glad-handing, résumé-faking huckster named Ed Greenfield. And what a shop it was. Despite Ms Lepore’s repeated references to the Simulmatics team as “the best and the brightest,” the group that Greenfield assembled was, well, not that. There was Bill McPhee, a manic-depressive mathematician who wrote some of Simulmatics’ early data analysis programs from a locked ward on Bellevue and had a habit of abusing and humiliating his wife in front of their six-year-old daughter; Eugene Burdick, a political scientist / literary celebrity / Ballantine Ale pitchman whose writing, according to Ms Lepore, was less subtle than a sledgehammer; and Ithiel de Sola Pool, “a numbers guy who taught at MIT and walked the halls of the Pentagon” but who seemed to lack the basic competency and knowledge expected of a scientist.

If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

Author: Jill Lepore

Publisher: Liveright Publishing

Price: $28.95

Pages: 432

In its decade of existence, Simulmatics helped this newspaper report early results of the 1962 midterm elections, developed strategies for “selling shampoo and dog food,” predicted where and when urban rioting would occur, analysed communications in communist countries and helped direct the United States’ disastrously murderous counterin­surgency efforts in Vietnam. Or, rather, it tried to do those things. Ms Lepore undermines her attempt to elide over the differences between Simulmatics’ ambitions and its accomplishments by quoting post-mortems from clients: Its election-night collaboration with The Times was “a completely disorganised shambles”; its work in Vietnam was “dubious and its methods questionable”. The coup de grâce comes courtesy of the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, the department responsible for 70 per cent of Simulmatics’ annual revenue: “Simulmatics reflects discredit not only upon itself as an organisation — it appears more a sham — but upon behavioural research in general.”

But the fact that Simulmatics can’t support Ms Lepore’s narrative shouldn’t detract from the importance of the story she’s trying to tell. Her frustrations — with how what was once thought of as propaganda or psychological warfare was subsumed and legitimised by behavioural scientists, who rechristened the field with the anodyne label of “mass communication”; with the conservative opponents of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society who killed a proposal for a government agency to set up “ethical guidelines, safeguards and rules” for the use of the massive amount of personal data held by the federal government; with the fact that the Privacy Act of 1974 failed to protect that same data from private corporations; with the generations of mostly white, male tech evangelists who lacked the imagination to consider how their simplistic libertarian fantasies might affect others; with the billionaire leaders of and Facebook, whose “swaggering, devil-may-care ethical ambition” begins and ends with meaningless mottoes like “don’t be evil” because “doing good did not come into it”; with America in 2020, where “the only knowledge that counts is prediction, and … corporations extract wealth by way of the collection of data and the manipulation of attention and the profit of prophecy” — should be our frustrations as well.

“Simulmatics failed,” she writes in her epilogue, “but not before its scientists built a very early version of the machine in which humanity would in the early 21st 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.” That Ms Lepore overstates Simulmatics’ role in this tale does not make her ultimate conclusions any less true, or any less terrifying.

©2020 The New York Times News Service

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First Published: Sun, September 27 2020. 23:28 IST