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. 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 others: 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 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.
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and Affiliate Professor of Law at Harvard University. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker, and host of the podcast, The Last Archive. Her many books include These Truths: A History of the United States (2018), an international bestseller and was named one of Time magazine’s top ten non-fiction books of the decade. (A recent essay considers responses to the book.) Her latest book, IF THEN: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, is available on September 15, 2020.
danah boyd is founder and president of Data & Society, a partner researcher at Microsoft Research, and a visiting professor at New York University. Her research is focused on making certain that society has a nuanced understanding of the relationship between technology and society, especially as issues of inequity and bias emerge. More on boyd here.
Explore more from Jill Lepore:
- Podcast: https://www.thelastarchive.com/
- Interview: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/27/books/review/jill-lepore-by-the-book-interview.html
- Interview: https://www.publicbooks.org/public-thinker-jill-lepore-on-the-challenge-of-explaining-things/
Election Data and Voting Predictions:
- The New York Times coverage of Simulmatics (1961): https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1961/08/27/118050055.html?pageNumber=174
- Eugene Burdick, “Science Thinks It Can Predict How You’ll Vote This Fall,” THE WEEK, May 1956. https://qfreeaccountssjc1.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_1RZiTQLiFSB4ckJ
- The Simulmatics Project, Ithiel De Sola Pool and Robert Abelson, The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer, 1961), pp. 167-183. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2746702?seq=1
Data & Society
- Databite No. 108: Emma Briant: Peering Inside the Propaganda Machine: https://datasociety.net/library/peering-inside-the-propaganda-machine/