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

Jill Lepore’s latest book, as she is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. I think I read this right after I read These Truths, her magnetic page-turner on American history, but If/Then digs deep into history as well — the story behind the Simulmatics Corporation and how they started the data/probabilistic/future obsessed revolution that is behind a good deal of the political divide of the present. Simulmatics failed as a corporation, but they had the early version of the machine in which we are all trapped — applying the science of psychological warfare to the affairs of ordinary life, manipulating opinion, exploiting our attention, commodifying information, dividing voters, fracturing communities, alienating individuals, and, ultimately, undermining democracy. Sound familiar to where we are today as a society? Lepore does a nice job of making a direct link between the origins of Simulmatics and big data, AI, Facebook, algorithms, cambridge analytica and our endless social media wars with one another. Can data be used for good as well? Of course, but we are so deep in the muck that it is impossible to imagine a scenario where we can get out of it. Once again, all of this was no accident — it was planned and manipulated by humans, and there is no better way to understand the present if we don’t understand the history behind it. Lepore is a master in that sense, and she doesn’t mince words in letting us know how she feels about it.

  • Simulmatics Corporation = cold war america’s cambridge analytica
  • using social and economic data and their own knowledge to work out new programs for computer simulation, acting all all the probabilities that night flow from a given set of circumstances
  • wrote FORTRAN, IF/THEN statement to instruct a computer to simulate possible actions and calculate their consequences under different conditions, again and again and again
  • scientists who worked there figured if they could collect enough data about enough people and feed it into a machine, everything one day could be predictable — human behavior could be anticipated and driven ad directed by targeted messages
  • by simulating human behavior, the “People Machine” could help the human race avert each and every disaster
  • helped to invent the data mad and near totalitarian 21st century — prediction
  • where now corporations extract wealth by the way of the collection of data and the manipulation of attention and the profit of prophecy
  • a future obsessed with the future but unable to improve it
  • people who worked there were mid-century white liberals in an era where mid century white liberals weren’t expected to understand people who weren’t white or liberal
  • human behavior = behavior of men/artificial intelligence = own intelligence, fantasy of their own intelligence
  • did not consider the intelligence of women to be intelligent, did not consider female understanding of human behavior to be knowledge
  • early 50’s, most americans didn’t know the difference between liberalism and conservatives/wasn’t much of a difference, no one cared — both parties were liberal
  • Adlai Stevenson in 52 ran a campaign against the influence of advertising agencies on american politics
  • campaigns inc — first political consulting firm in the world — retained by the AMA to defeat nationalized health care — called it socialized medicine
  • Eisenhower won by placing his faith in ad men — I Like Ike — first to appear in televised ads — political advertising created — brainwashing entered the lexicon
  • UNIVAC computer used by CBS on election night in 1952
  • Ed Greenfield, early founder, wanted to help Dems figure out how to use computers to help predict voting
  • mass communication — who says what to whom and to what effect?
  • Cold War folks got into predictive sciences — needed to foretell the future — cast aside the past, humanities, etc.
  • protecting american democracy from demagoguery and fighting communism — how do voters in a democracy form their opinions? how can the influence of communism be stopped?
  • needed a prediction, a mathematical model
  • 56 Stevenson ran again, and Greenfield proposed studying qualitative and quantitative analysis of interviews with consumers and voters — focus groups — to test messages
  • little difference between parties — partiers were sorted based on families, neighborhoods, not on ideas
  • voters not sorted in this way tended to know very little about politics and were unable to identify the meaning of liberal or conservative
  • voters were not rational
  • behavioral scientists worked on political and military campaigns in the mid century
  • cold war altered the history of knowledge, distorting the aims and ends of american universities — MIT — defense department budget skyrocketed, money went to research universities — modern research university built by the federal government
  • de sola Pool — another early founder — worked with Greenfield and collected data — theory of “social networks”
  • electronic computing machines emerged in WWII — missle trajectories, crack ciphers
  • Simulmatics = simulation and automation; AI
  • automation = machines doing work of humans; simulation = computers using data to create a mathematical model for real world behavior
  • Pool thought understanding social networks would be useful for decision making communication, morale, warfare, intelligence
  • politics as americans knew it ended in the 60’s with or without Simulmatics — liberal consensus widely and wrongly perceived in the 50’s would fall apart, to pieces
  • New Left/New Right — both dedicated to a politics of confrontation and humiliation and evisceration
  • late 50’s, GOP had a stronger position on civil rights, Dems lost black voters in the north, especially middle class voters
  • 60 election, Simulmatics made two main points — dems could not win back the wthie house without black voters and party could succeed in winning back black voters who’d defected to the GOP only by taking a stronger position on civil rights
  • Simulmatics was hired by the Kennedy campaign; voters had a tough time telling JFK apart from Nixon
  • Simulmatics also recommended that in addition to taking on civil rights, he confront his religion head on, not to avert criticism but to incite it by decrying religious prejudice
  • 60 election was the fastest and best reported in history — networks used computers — CBS used IBM
  • closest race since 1880’s — two recounts, led by the Republican National Committee but not endorsed by Nixon
  • as simulmatics predicted, northern black votes were critical — without them, JFK would have lost
  • most of the questions and concerns raised in the early decades of the 21st century about computers and politics were first raised in the 60’s about Simulmatics People Machine
  • People Machine story in Harper’s about the use of the computer in the election was a PR stunt, and Kennedy team was furious — became an issue nationally — transition team denied using the machine (lied)
  • according to writers at the time, democracy itself had been corrupted
  • Simulmatics met with hollywood studios to set up data analytics that would one day lead to Netflix, Spotify, “mass culture model” to collect consumer data from companies — used for direct advertising and sales, kinda like Amazon
  • 1962 NYTimes signed a contract with Simulmatics
  • news flash = times broadcasting results from its NYC building by way of searchlights
  • to compete with TV, newspapers started going deeper with stories — investigating and analyzing them “News Analysis” — more critical of the government
  • Great Acceleration = computers processing data in real time, communicating with one another in real time
  • post cuban missile crisis, battle would have to be fought on the ground — greater involvement in Vietnam
  • 1964, for the first time, conservatives took over a convention
  • mocked the press, attacking it for liberal bias — more than 7 in 10 GOP delegates voted against a platform plank that would have affirmed the constitutionality of the civil rights act — Goldwater took the party hard to the right
  • LBJ hid the Nam escalation from the american public — by 1965 Simulmatics had an office in Saigon
  • Nam was first war waged by computer
  • McNamara aimed to reduce the war, at first, to a computational science — counterinsurgency, waged militarily, behavioral science — winning “hearts and minds”
  • Project Camelot — largest behavioral science project in human history — predict and influence politically significant aspects of social change in the developing world
  • early warning system — enlisted behavioral scientists in the work of gathering data and devising computer models that would allow them to achieve early detection and prevention of the predisposing conditions for insurgency
  • suppressing revolution but political expression itself — set of a political firestorm when word got out
  • defense department terminated it
  • Simulmatics created a simulated world, an imaginary population, then ran queries, testing the effects of various changes one at a time — Dynamic Modeling, done by ARPA, created a simulated world and set it in motion
  • didn’t contemplate the illogic of counting motives, immeasurability of suffering, immortality of war
  • Nam would test all of these policies — decision by numbers, knowledge without humanity, future in figures — it would fail, and endure, because in the 21st century it would organize daily life, politics, war, commerce, everything
  • Simulatics conducted the Chieu Hoi program — convince vietcong soldiers to defect by promising then they would be welcome — they conducted opinion surveys in Nam
  • Most of Simulmatics work was funded by the department of defense/ 7 out of every 10 dollars
  • by 1967, press started to report that US government officials appeared to be lying about the war
  • Pentagon Papers commissioned by McNamara — involvement went back years and administrations
  • McNamara submitted a memorandum to Johnson to get out of the war and submitted his resignation — Johnson ignored him
  • Simulmatics then attempted to solve the Negro problem in american cities by building a new simulation, not a people machine but a Riot Prediction Machine in the late 60's
  • Moynihan (The Negro Family: The Case for National Action) joined Simulmatics and wanted to know whether the computer simulation of organ problems could be used to predict race riots
  • fantasy endured for years, widely and passionately held as the 21st century arguments that urban problems can be solved by “smart cities” and “predictive policing” and more data, and the like
  • Simulmatics was a failure in Nam and a failure with the Race Riot Machine as well
  • Nixon ran in 68, decided to court the white vote, predicted riots, “silent majority”, promised to end mayhem with law and order, predicted chaos, so he could save the nation
  • the closer blacks got to vote, the more furiously political consultants had labored to divide and segment the electorate by ideology and race
  • after 1965, the parties, newly voted, began to move to the poles of the political spectrum
  • voter by voter, issue by issue the american divide had been simulated, and then had been automated — simulmatics
  • Pool was a visionary — interest group politics would soon yield to a politics of self, every citizen a party of one
  • also predicted emerging technologies
  • data driven 21s century started with what simulmatics called “massive data” — aggregation of many smaller sets of data that would be come to called “big data”
  • Great Society required that Johnson collect a lot of data for the government
  • debate raged over establishing a National Data Center — public for the first time engaged in a sustained conversation about the consequences of aggregation of personal data on computers
  • the data center didn’t matter because the data would be there anyway, but no one really cared about the implications — who does it be long to? can it be shared or sold? what is the obligation of whoever has the data?
  • Data center was never established, casualty of the disintegration of the Great Society
  • after 1968, primaries became binding and conventions hardly mattered for who was chosen to run — polls and computers would take care of that
  • New Right pulled the GOP toward an anti government conservativism/new left pulling the dems toward anti government radicalism/they shared a common enemy — liberalism
  • MIT was largely funded by the department of defense
  • Pool really wrote the founding political theory of the internet — fought hard against any sort of regulation at all
  • Simulmatics eventually died, bankrupt — fantasy of predicting human behavior by way of machines did not
  • 1971, senate investigation concluded that the US army had collected data and conducted surveillance on civil rights figures, activists, dissidents, sorted records in computers — treating american citizens as if they were foreign combatants
  • 1972 — ARPANET (internet) demonstrated to the public for the first time
  • same year, hackers became the new communalists, coming network of networks their new commune
  • machine became the New Left’s salvation, internet personal liberation, Pool the prophet
  • ARPANET was never a secret, no one cared when it was first demonstrated
  • writers like Stuart Brand (new left) combined with Newt Gingrich (new right) — unregulated internet in his Contract for America — Pool’s arguments also shaped Gingrich
  • internet followed no rules by many mantras — free content, media solves all problems, data drives predictions
  • when Facebook founded, Pool’s theories of social networks at last found the perfect algorithmic expression
  • Simulmatics failed, but they had the early version of the machine in which we are all trapped — applies the science of psych warfare to the affairs of ordinary life, manipulates opinion, exploits attention, commodifies information, divides voters, fractures communities, alienates individuals, undermines democracy
  • pioneered the use of computer run simulation, pattern detection and prediction in politics, segmenting the electorate into voter types and issues and clusters to advise candidates about strategies for voter targeted issues
  • advertising, newspapers, research in Nam, race riot machine
  • collect data, write code, detect patterns,, target ads, predict behavior, direct action, encourage consumption, influence elections
  • government abdicated responsibility to monitor emerging tech — havoc on societies, especially on spheres which Simulmatics engaged — politics, ads, journalism, counterinsurgency, race relations — abandonment of humanistic knowledge
  • future was everything, past nothing
  • New Left — knowledge is biased/ New Right agreed
  • Silicon Valley’s interest wasn’t national security, it was profit
  • 2010’s = flood of money into universities, data science
  • AI, “predictive”, “data science” way to raise huge amounts of venture capital funding
  • in the Valley, no rules, no women, or family, or knowledge other than the calculations of computers
  • the more mystification, the wealthier the donors
  • Cambridge Analytica used FB data in an attempt to influence the election in a way that Simulmatics would have understood
  • Trump used weaponized AI propaganda machine, hardly new as Simulmatics invented it in 1959
  • invention of the future has a history, decades old, dilapidated
  • what matters is what remains, endures, and cures

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.