The Bumbling 1960s Data Scientists Who Anticipated Facebook and Google

IF THEN
How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future
By Jill Lepore

In late December 1960, Harper’s Magazine hit the newsstands with a blockbuster of a story by a freelancer named Thomas Morgan: John F. Kennedy’s razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon the previous month had been orchestrated by a top-secret computer called the “People Machine.” This mysterious device, which had been invented by an equally mysterious company called the Simulmatics Corporation, had, according to Harper’s, concluded that taking a firm stand on civil rights and confronting anti-Catholic bigotry directly, both of which Kennedy did, would help the young senator from Massachusetts win the presidency.

In a period of rising anxiety about both communist brainwashing and automation, this was big news. The story of a “robot campaign strategist” analyzing voter rolls and public opinion polls was picked up by media across the country; one newspaper editorial described the People Machine as a device that would make “the tyrannies of Hitler, Stalin and their forebears look like the inept fumbling of a village bully.” For a brief period, the scandal threatened to delegitimize Kennedy’s presidency before it had even begun.

But the Harper’s story, it turned out, was little more than a hacky publicity stunt by a company propagandist: Within a few months, Morgan, who’d edited the very Simulmatics reports he’d described in his magazine story, had been given an ownership stake in the company to go along with his title of “information manager.” Therein lies the paradox at the heart of “If Then,” Jill Lepore’s fascinating but flawed new book about the company she says “invented the future”: Her attempt to use Simulmatics as a parable for and precursor to “the data-mad and near-totalitarian 21st century” is hamstrung by the fact that it failed at almost everything it tried to do — oftentimes spectacularly so.

Simulmatics, which opened up shop in 1959 and ceased operations in 1970, was the brainchild of a backslapping, glad-handing, résumé-faking huckster named Ed Greenfield. Frustrated that Adlai Stevenson, his preferred presidential candidate, kept losing, Greenfield dreamed of using a combination of “information extraction” and “voter prediction” to finally lead Stevenson, “the best man, even though he wasn’t the most electable man,” to victory. Stevenson, of course, didn’t even win the 1960 Democratic nomination — but no matter; by that time, Greenfield’s shop was up and running.

And what a shop it was. Despite Lepore’s repeated references to the Simulmatics team as “the best and the brightest,” the group that Greenfield assembled was, well, not that. There was Bill McPhee, a manic-depressive mathematician who wrote some of Simulmatics’ early data analysis programs from a locked ward on Bellevue and had a habit of abusing and humiliating his wife in front of their 6-year-old daughter; Eugene Burdick, a political scientist / literary celebrity / Ballantine Ale pitchman whose writing, according to Lepore, was less subtle than a sledgehammer; and Ithiel de Sola Pool, “a numbers guy who taught at M.I.T. and walked the halls of the Pentagon” but who seemed to lack the basic competency and knowledge expected of a scientist. (Later in his career, Pool’s writings helped ensure the internet would be free of government regulation. In an interview with Lepore, Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker and a onetime friend of Pool’s, called him “the most corrupt social scientist I had ever met, without question.”)

In its decade of existence, Simulmatics helped this newspaper report early results of the 1962 midterm elections, developed strategies for “selling shampoo and dog food,” predicted where and when urban rioting would occur, analyzed communications in communist countries and helped direct the United States’ disastrously murderous counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam. Or, rather, it tried to do those things; Lepore undermines her attempt to elide over the differences between Simulmatics’ ambitions and its accomplishments by quoting or summarizing post-mortems from the company’s clients: Its election-night collaboration with The Times was “a completely disorganized shambles”; its work in Vietnam was “dubious and its methods questionable”; the studies it put together for a national commission on civil disorders suffered from “poor design, lack of expertise and misrepresentation” and were “reprehensibly sloppy.” The coup de grâce comes courtesy of the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency during a period in which the department was responsible for 70 percent of Simulmatics’ annual revenue: “Simulmatics reflects discredit not only upon itself as an organization — it appears more a sham — but upon behavioral research in general.”

Over the last decade, Lepore, a Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer, has repeatedly shown herself to be an uncommonly astute and insightful interpreter of American history, and one of her many strengths is the moral clarity that infuses her writing. Lately, however, it feels almost as if she’s trying to stanch the flow of hatred, misinformation, racism and venality that threatens to overwhelm the country by the sheer volume of her work: “If Then” is her third book in three years, and that includes 2018’s “These Truths,” a monumental history of the United States. So far in 2020, she’s also released a 10-part podcast “about the history of truth” and published 12 articles in The New Yorker. (I’m overwhelmed thinking about consuming that much information, never mind producing it.)

This prolificness likely explains why her latest effort feels as if it was rushed out the door before it was ready. When she’s at her best, Lepore’s writing has a nimble fluency that can be exhilarating. Here, however, events are described out of order, crucial context is missing and stylistic tics become intrusive: McPhee “drank and he drank and he drank and he smoked and he smoked and he smoked”; his long-suffering wife was forever “demurring, demurring, demurring, demurring.” By the time Lepore describes Ed Greenfield’s hunger for McPhee’s “voting prediction machine” — he “wanted it, wanted it, wanted it” — I couldn’t resist penciling in the margin, “I get it, I get it, I get it.”

But the fact that Simulmatics can’t support Lepore’s narrative shouldn’t detract from the importance of the story she’s trying to tell. Lepore’s frustrations — with how what was once thought of as propaganda or psychological warfare was subsumed and legitimized by behavioral scientists, who rechristened the field with the anodyne label of “mass communication”; with the billions of dollars of Cold War funding that strangled the humanities and transformed American research universities into military-academic outposts dependent on federal grants; with the conservative opponents of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society who killed a proposal for a government agency to set up “ethical guidelines, safeguards and rules” for the use of the massive amount of personal data held by the federal government; with the fact that the Privacy Act of 1974 recognized that the aggregation of this data, “while essential to the efficient operations of the government, has greatly magnified the harm to individual privacy that can occur” but failed to protect that same data from private corporations; with the generations of mostly white, overwhelmingly male tech evangelists who lacked the imagination and the curiosity to consider the ways their simplistic libertarian fantasies might affect people who weren’t as privileged or as lucky as they were; with the billionaire leaders of Google and Facebook, whose “swaggering, devil-may-care ethical ambition” begins and ends with meaningless mottoes like “don’t be evil” because “doing good did not come into it”; with America in 2020, where “the only knowledge that counts is prediction, and … corporations extract wealth by way of the collection of data and the manipulation of attention and the profit of prophecy” — should be our frustrations as well.

“Simulmatics failed,” Lepore writes in her epilogue, “but not before its scientists built a very early version of the machine in which humanity would in the early 21st 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.” That Lepore overstates Simulmatics’ role in this tale does not make her ultimate conclusions any less true, or any less terrifying.

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