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If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  1,190 ratings  ·  221 reviews
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. Jill 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 ...more
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published September 15th 2020 by Liveright
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Jun 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adult-fiction
Absolutely fascinating! Historian Jill Lepore has put her scholarly research skills to use and brought out of the archives the history of an obscure company, Simulmatics, that was the forerunner for today's Silicon Valley start-ups. The young men who rule Silicon Valley may believe they are unique and that history is inconsequential to their goals, but Lepore is here to tell them otherwise. Founded in 1959 and bankrupt in just over a decade, Simulmatics used early computers to gather and analyze ...more
Oct 19, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2020
Much more a rough history of the political landscape of the 1950s and 60s than of Simulatics. Makes you think now and then but then obliterates any useful thoughts with a mound of random tangents and pieces of trivia. The actual history of Simulatics is probably a third or less of the book. Pretty disappointing.
Bruce Katz
Jul 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
I confess: I have a brain crush on Ms Lepore. I enjoy her books, her articles in The New Yorker, and her new podcast, The Last Archive ("a show about how we know what we know and why it seems, lately, as if we don’t know anything at all"). If I could have coffee with any public intellectual, she'd be right at the top of the list. Her intelligence, wit, and breadth of knowledge are simply wonderful.

"If Then," her latest book, is ostensibly the story of the Simulmatics Corporation. In fact, what i
Donald Powell
Dec 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Jill Lepore is a very good writer. I realized this is the fourth of her books I have read. She is also an eminent American historian. This was a fascinating look at the early events leading up to the internet as we know it today. Because she is an historian she has lots of details and names that needed recording but at times left me near yawning. I understand the mission though and am glad she included the parts I was not astute enough to acknowledge as important. She ties everything together to ...more
Oct 21, 2020 rated it liked it
I have a great deal of respect for jill lepore. I’ve read two other books she wrote, and I definitely agree with her position on the current state of affairs in america.

This book, on the history of the simulatics corporation, was boring. I kept waiting for the hook, but it just kept droning on about this company which is loosely tied to the dawn of ARPANET (the earliest internet), and some crossover between the players and concepts of simulmatics and of ARPA. But there was really nothing compel
Ed Erwin
Jun 06, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, history
Long before political campaigns manipulated people with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, there was another company trying the same thing. Simulmatics built what they called a "People Machine" to try to predict how people would respond to various scenarios. They claimed success in helping JFK win the presidency. They went on to have much less success predicting the outcomes of strategies in the war in Vietman and predicting riots in the USA. (Their work in Vietnam was particularly bad.) The comp ...more
Sep 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book could have easily been subtitled as “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Prequel” - or something similar, like “The Internet Behaving Badly, The Prequel”.

Jill Lepore provides a history of the Simulmatics Corp. which went into business to use data analysis to forecast the results of political campaigns and elections, so that candidates could learn about their electorate in detail on key issues and then fashion predictions about the results of speeches and other interventions. Get it
Bowman Dickson
Oct 16, 2020 rated it it was ok
Wow, not sure how a topic I’m DEEPLY interested in can be written about in a way that’s so boring. I have 80 pages left and not sure I’m going to finish. Its jsut too many names and unimportant details - I was expecting more of an interesting discussion about how predictions have altered our modern society and 3/4 of the way through we’ve progressed from 1960 to 1968. 2 starts because I enjoyed reading about jfk and his brush with predictive analytics especially as our presidential election shit ...more
May 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
This traces the rise and fall of Simulmatics Corp., a fascinating slice of political, sociological, and computational history that I had never heard of. Which is interesting because I know a few things about all three sectors, but this data science startup, launched in the 1950s and bankrupt by the end of the '60s, was a new piece of the puzzle for me. And it really is, literally a piece of a lot of bigger things—algorithms, advertising, the big elections of the 1960s, efforts to quantify the Vi ...more
Nov 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The US media hailed the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign as the one that began the era of social media in political campaigns. Obama’s team deployed multiple social networking applications like Twitter and Facebook as part of their campaign outreach. These applications became a vehicle to raise money and target voters at a micro-level to get out the vote. Social media became a powerful medium to counter smear campaigns. It enabled Obama to topple the Clinton challenge in the primaries and then J ...more
May 16, 2021 rated it really liked it
"Simulmatics failed, but not before its scientists built a very early version of the machine in which humanity would in the early twenty-first 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."

This book is long and at some points overwritten but it's an incred
Tanuj Solanki
Oct 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020, america, ft-mck, nba
Proof that American tech solutionism has always quickly arrived at behaviour change as one of its objectives.

At the end, Lepore has you believe that Facebook-Amazon-Netflix-Google is the outcome of a way of looking at the world that preceded these companies by decades. The book carries a sense of loss with regards to how tech solutionism, despite being sustained by government dollar, escaped the government's oversight (and became its own government, if you like). Lepore traces this to one of th
Oct 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Jill Lepore is one of the most interesting historians working today. If Then chronicles a period in our history that has become a forgotten footnote in most ways, but which underpins almost everything that has led to the world we now live in. Just when we start to think some ideas are "new" someone turns over a page, a rock, a leaf and reveals that, no, this idea began much longer ago than we remembered.

Highly recommended.
Hank Stuever
Nov 17, 2020 rated it liked it
Not the most riveting of Jill Lepore's books (for that, try her books about Jane Franklin or the history of Wonder Woman), but "If Then" is definitely an interesting piece of the history of how humans eventually just became part of a predictable series of algorithms. What Simulmatics was doing circa 1960 is sort of the prototype of what all tech does now with the personal data that we users willingly hand over in our infatuation with gizmos and convenience. I wish the book had been more clear on ...more
Dec 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Somewhere in the promotional copy for If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, I came across the name Eugene Burdick. I first discovered that name not long after the events covered in the first third of this book. In junior high school, I discovered the book Fail-Safe which was co-written by Burdick and that led me to his co-written The Ugly American. I had to find out what this author of political thrillers had to do with the information technology industry (before it was c ...more
Amy Anderson
Dec 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I love modern history and computer science, so this book is right up my alley. In addition, it's extremely well written and engaging. At first, I was curious about why the author devoted so much time to Adlai Stevenson, but it all made sense by the middle of the book. And I was stunned to learn about the various attempts to use technology for social engineering in the sixties. Technologists, take heed: history matters. ...more
Oct 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating, not just for the story it purports to tell. Also about Vietnam, women’s history and the 1950’s in general. I couldn’t put it down. Great reporting, reaching from government documents to unknown wives’ letters to their mothers.
Dec 14, 2020 rated it did not like it
I'm not convinced the Simulmatics Corporation accomplished much of anything. This book rambles off historical events that Simulmatics was tied to, but at best only portrays this company and group of people as incompetent. I was thinking this 50 pages into the book, and the rest of the book only confirmed this to be true.

If you're looking for a history of companies, computers, and social scientists' involvement in swaying public opinion and decision making, this isn't it. I considered writing tha
Terry Slaven
Oct 13, 2020 rated it liked it
This is a history of the origins of what we now call “predictive analytics.” It is a rather disjointed history. The first hundred or so pages discuss, in a jumbled fashion, the dramatis personae of the story: a core of men drawn from business and academia who found common cause in promoting the presidential candidacies of Adlai Stevenson. They vowed to use the infant tools of computers and data collection to boost the election chances of the next Democrat to run for president (and, not insignifi ...more
Nov 16, 2020 rated it it was ok
This book was a real struggle to complete. I did so because of author Jill Lepore's excellent reputation as a writer. The book has stellar moments, particularly the epilogue. But much of it is completely useless trivia, irrelevant to the supposed thrust of the book. It felt like a couple of magazine articles bulked up (poorly) to book length. Cannot recommend. ...more
The history of a mid-20th century corporation called Simulmatics. Lepore makes it obvious why she found this subject to be of interest - she calls it "Cold War America's Cambridge Analytica".

Simulmatic's management was a motley crew - advertisers from 5th Avenue, and social scientists from MIT. Their idealism and their willingness to break old rules and conventions invite Lepore to draw comparisons to the disruptors of Silicon Valley. Their work was first in election campaigns - in reaching out
Dan Gorman
I was absolutely gobsmacked by this book. Jill Lepore reveals the deep historical roots of “big data” — and the story is terrifying. This is one of the most important works of political history in years. Lepore documents how the Simulmatics Corporation, with its targeted models of voters, its work for the government on Vietnam psychological warfare, and its brazen culture of hucksterism and misogyny, laid a disturbing blueprint for the American tech industry. The sexism, the greed, the amoral us ...more
Oct 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics, non-fiction
This leaned more on politics than it did on technology, which isn't what I was expecting, but it's still a fascinating look into the rise and fall of a company I admittedly didn't know anything about. Simulmatics started in the 1950s and used data analysis to simulate human behavior and in turn predict the outcome of political elections. It's your Facebook algorithms and 538 analytics long before they ever existed. Jill Lepore does an excellent deep dive into the company's history, as well as th ...more
Dec 17, 2020 rated it liked it
3.5 stars, 3 for the content, 4 for the writing. LePore has written the definitive book on a company during the 60s and 70s that tried to predict human behavior and sell that info to political parties, government, corporations and anyone else who wanted it. She tries to establish Simulmatics as the progenitor of companies such as Cambridge Analytics. She based her story on a trove of documents she uncovered about the company. The discovery must have been too irresistible for her to ignore. Probl ...more
Oct 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
3.5***. I love Jill Lepore. She is one of my favorite historians, and I very much enjoyed this book. There were parts that were absolutely riveting and some parts that were rather slow. I thoroughly enjoyed the history (of course), but I felt like skimming some of the more personal information about the men running Simulmatics and their private lives. I was looking for a more pointed conclusion about the impact of this "mind reading machine", but the end seemed to skirt the tie in to the Trump e ...more
Laura Spira
Dec 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
I found this a compelling read. Through a meticulously researched account of the rise and fall of the Simulmatics company, Jill Lepore traces the ascendancy of the power of data analytics. The story of the company, its visionary founders, its mistakes (the sections on its activities in Vietnam are particularly chilling to anyone with a social science research background) and its role in laying the foundations for many of the worrying aspects of modern "big data" management and exploitation is we ...more
A really important and relevant read to understand American politics today, the history of targeted political media, data collection and how it went wrong. This book takes you through the early creation of a company that had an interesting idea that it ultimately failed at, but that would taken up by other companies and government entities with wild success.
Jan 06, 2021 rated it liked it
Full of lots of fascinating information on the obscure origin of predictive computer technology. I learned a great deal, but with other Lepore books I've read in the past, i felt overwhelmed by the content at times. Still very worthwhile as I absorbed morsels of information on this fascinating pre-common computer era even if I'm not a Simulmatics expert. ...more
Kressel Housman
Feb 20, 2021 rated it really liked it
If you're concerned about Big Data and its influence on our lives, this book will give you its historical roots going all the way back to the 50's and 60's. It's not a happy message, but it's an important one. ...more
Dec 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating book for those interested in how data is collected and used and how data collection began in the U.S. on a significant scale. The Kennedy election and the Vietnam War are referenced in the use of computerized data collections. The book also talks about the origins of the collection of data to be used on a large scale with implications for today. This is also a story about how large data collections do not provide data that is useful, and in fact harmful and deceptive leadin ...more
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Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, Harvard College Professor, and chair of Harvard's History and Literature Program. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker.

Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for the best non-fiction book on race, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; The Name of War (Knopf, 1998), winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Ralph Waldo Emerson P

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