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Jill Lepore’s book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future (Liveright, 2020) is an account of the Cold War origins of the data-obsessed, algorithmic twenty-first century.
Launched in 1959 by some of the nation’s leading social scientists, the Simulmatics Corporation mined data, targeted voters, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge ― decades before Facebook, Google, and Cambridge Analytica.
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.
Watch an interview with Lepore about the book, and related topics at New York State Writers Institute’s YouTube channel here.
A staff writer for The New Yorker, and professor of American History at Harvard, Lepore is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist: in 2006 for New York Burning, the history of a little-known slave revolt in colonial Manhattan, and in 2019 for Criticism. Other bestsellers include These Truths: A History of the United States (2018) and This America: The Case for the Nation (2019).
Book Purchases made through this Amazon link support the New York Almanack’s mission to report new publications relevant to New York State.