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

The only difference may be that Simulmatics began “with the best of intentions,” historian Jill Lepore argues in her new book, “ If Then...

The only difference may be that Simulmatics began “with the best of intentions,” historian Jill Lepore argues in her new book, “If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future,” which reconstructs the nearly forgotten legacy of the company as both a cautionary tale for the algorithmic age and an antidote to the tech industry’s ahistoricism. Lepore, a Harvard professor and New Yorker writer, unearths decades of archival evidence to support the book’s bold claim that Simulmatics is “a missing link in the history of technology” that connects World War II-era studies in mass persuasion to the invention of behavioral science in the 1950s and our contemporary dystopia of inescapable algorithms.

But Lepore is less convincing when she claims that Simulmatics “incubated” modern-day Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Palantir and Google. For one, Simulmatics’ computing power was primitive and its execution often bungled. As Lepore establishes elsewhere in the book, the company’s lasting contribution was developing the justification for predictive analytics, data collection, audience segmentation and mass communication — framing these tactics as a means to preserve democracy, forestall violence and amplify marginalized voices, even as Simulmatics subverted those same ideals.

In that light, “If Then” may be most instructive as a parable for well-intentioned technocrats: the “What-If Men” who ask questions about how the world could be improved but bristle when those same questions are asked about their own impact on the world.

Simulmatics President Ed Greenfield, a Madison Avenue PR consultant with a passion for Democratic politics, first saw the power of computers to transform American politics during the 1952 election. Republicans dominated television advertising, and Greenfield figured the Democrats needed their own machine to compete.

At the time, Democrats were losing Black voters because of the party’s tepid stance on civil rights and its fear of alienating White Southern segregationists.

Greenfield was a liberal philanthropist who donated to both civil rights and civil liberties causes. He believed that offering Democrats a simulation of Black voter behavior could push the party to support desegregation. He also was a born salesman who understood the commercial potential of promising clients scientific certainty during turbulent times.

By 1959, Greenfield had assembled the right mathematicians, behavioral scientists and computer programmers to launch Simulmatics. Armed with the “blindingly fast” power of an IBM 704, the only computer in its day capable of handling complex mathematics and modeling “if/then” simulations using a new tool called Fortran, Simulmatics pitched Democratic Party officials on a study of Black voters, a demographic typically excluded by pollsters.

Greenfield promised that his “People Machine” could measure the impact on votes down to a percentage point if, say, John F. Kennedy delivered a campaign speech renouncing segregation in the Deep South. But the findings from the company’s study were less granular. Simulmatics concluded that Democrats could not win the White House without Black voters and that Black voters who had defected to the GOP could be won back only if the party took a stronger position on civil rights.

A few months later, Kennedy, the candidate “least appealing to African-Americans,” hired Simulmatics, and his campaign quickly set up a civil rights division.

After Kennedy won the presidency, Greenfield wasted no time taking the company public, courting clients in advertising, government and media. In a post-election publicity stunt, a former PR flack for Simulmatics wrote a story for Harper’s magazine saying that “a top secret computer . . . had in effect elected Kennedy.” The bid for attention backfired, ticking off the president’s campaign manager and brother, Robert Kennedy, and stoking fears about brainwashing. Opportunities dried up in Democratic politics, advertising and consumer goods, prompting some of Simulmatics’ “What-If Men” to defect.

Those who remained, however, continued to offer high-minded justification for their work.

Before the company went bankrupt in 1970, the well-meaning “midcentury white liberals” running Simulmatics deployed its People Machine to predict revolutionary uprisings in Latin America, arguing that forecasting counterinsurgencies was good for democracy. After word got out that the program might suppress “not only revolution, but political expression itself,” the U.S. government was forced to denounce the project.

But that didn’t stop Simulmatics from working for the Defense Department. The company set up an office in Saigon to try to win the hearts and minds of Vietnamese peasants to stop the spread of communism. But the Pentagon found Simulmatics’ “research dubious and its methods questionable.” In 1967, Simulmatics deployed the same techniques to predict race riots in American cities, taking credit for correctly divining the exact date of a riot in Rochester, N.Y., for the Eastman Kodak Company. The riot proved minimal because Simulmatics warned police, who were on hand — an outcome that encouraged Simulmatics to argue that its work could limit the scope of unrest. Lepore notes, however, that local civil rights leaders had been asking Eastman Kodak to implement job training and fair employment practices. Instead, the company hired Simulmatics.

Lepore relishes the opportunity to explore the absurdity of predicting political unrest through Simulmatics’ mathematical models. For example, the company’s computer-assisted study of Black voters took place in 1960, the same year that four Black students refused to give up their seats at a Whites-only lunch counter in a Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C. — inspiring protesters to stage sit-ins throughout the South. In its efforts to calculate why Black people were leaving the Democratic Party, Simulmatics could have adapted its research by finding interview subjects among the thousands of demonstrators or by analyzing the movement’s motives and goals. Instead, the company continued sorting “punch cards, dividing the electorate, voter by voter, issue by issue,” relying on old election returns and the “brittle logic of FORTRAN,” whose manual warned that it was designed to understand only “numerical meaning” and “may fail entirely” to express other types of problems.

Years later, when Simulmatics did conduct interviews to try to predict riots in Milwaukee, Black residents “disputed the very idea of a riot,” Lepore writes. They told interviewers that the “police were making little or no distinction between people demonstrating peacefully and those breaking the law.” They “were cracking heads everywhere.” But “police brutality didn’t quite fit into the Simulmatics codebook,” Lepore observes.

The driving force behind some of Simulmatics’ more questionable contracts was its head of research, Ithiel de Sola Pool, who spearheaded the company’s work with the Defense Department and would later run its operations in Vietnam. Lepore reports that Pool was also the first person to devise a “theory of ‘social networks.’ ” In a funding proposal to study the number of introductions needed to get from Person A to Person B, Pool contended that his research would benefit various aspects of national defense, including “morale, psychological warfare, and intelligence.”

Despite his ties to the Pentagon, Pool went on to write two books arguing against government intervention in the burgeoning Internet. In “one of the stranger ironies” of the company’s history, Lepore writes, these works transformed Pool into “an idol and prophet” for the counterculture heroes and cyberpunks synonymous with the personal-computing revolution. Pool’s work informed treatises like John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which framed the new technology as a tool for personal freedom. Lepore argues that Pool’s contributions encouraged the laissez-faire approach of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which freed the Internet from following the same rules as radio and TV.

Missing links in tech history have worked out in favor of those who can claim the mantle of the well-intentioned. In the backlash that followed revelations about Cambridge Analytica, for instance, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his inner circle maintained that the company was too idealistic to anticipate the way its platform could be misused.

But Lepore’s account suggests that election interference and mass manipulation were the original applications for this kind of technology. These uses were the reason the technologies received funding and flourished. Now that Lepore has established those origins, will today’s “What-If Men” change their tune?

If Then

How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

415 pp. $28.95

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Newsrust: Book review of If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore
Book review of If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore
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