We now live in a world where corporations have a massive amount of data on anyone who has used a phone and searched the internet or even shopped at a supermarket. A new book by Jill Lepore looks at one of the precursors of data giants like Amazon and political analysis firms such as Cambridge Analytica.
The Simulmatics Corporation was launched during the Cold War and began mining data to develop techniques to target voters. It operated decades before Facebook, and Google turned it into an art form.
With access to company archives, historian Jill Lepore, best-selling author of her one-volume history of the United States These Truths, tells how Simulmatics delivered a foretaste of today’s data-driven society. Lepore, a popular historian and New Yorker contributor, has found a fascinating footnote in American cultural and political history.
The company Simulmatics quickly attracted interest from the Kennedys, who had witnessed the Adlai Stevenson campaign disintegrate against the Eisenhower Republicans’ advertising prowess in the 1950s. The Democrats were interested in how these new computers could help them gain office. It is a relationship that continues to this day with politicians of all persuasions.
The way Simulmatics was founded and the operations of the company are fascinating. The book looks at the company’s role with the Rand Corporation that attempted to turn the Vietnam War into a mathematical model. Looking back, it is inconceivable that the United States thought it had any hope of winning against the Vietnamese, and companies like Simulmatics provided information that fed the delusion that the United States could somehow win the conflict.
In one of the book’s most provocative sections, Lepore shows how qualitative interviewers sent out to the Vietnamese countryside had little chance of understanding what was going on. Through a garble of translators, Vietnamese peasants gave information that they believed their questioners wanted to hear. It is a lesson that interviewers of all kinds need to take strong heed. We now live in a world where polls appear to be nothing more than educated guesses for similar reasons, and the origins of the failure can be seen in the work of Simulmatics.
The book promises to be interesting and revelatory about the beginnings of data analytics. However, the book’s basic flaw is that Lepore does not appear to have enough useable information about the company and to work around the problem; she employs a lot of background information to build up the story. The book often digresses to other areas and issues with only the most tenuous of links. Lepore is an exceptionally gifted narrative historian, and these sections are highly readable and thoroughly enjoyable, but it often veers well away from the company’s central narrative. Even so, Lepore has revealed an interesting footnote to American history and the early days of the information age.
If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future is out now through Hachette ($32.99).
Original review In Daily Review, 18 December 2020: