If Then

How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

hardcover, 432 pages

Published Sept. 15, 2020 by Liveright.

View on OpenLibrary

2 stars (1 review)

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 backstory to the methods, and the arrogance, of Silicon Valley.

Founded in 1959 by some of the nation’s leading social scientists—“the best and the brightest, fatally brilliant, Icaruses with wings of feathers and wax, flying to the sun”—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 …

3 editions

Lots of potential but less than the sum of its parts

2 stars

I am a total sucker for learning anything and everything I can about the mid 20th century think tanks and defense contractors that helped invent American technocracy. And yet I find myself lukewarm on this book at best.

The weakest part of the book is its core thesis: it attempts to make Simulmatics, a short-lived company that was far more bark than bite, into a harbinger of the modern data-driven, democracy-destroying privacy nightmare we live in today. The author fails to do this. Oh, she makes the claim that it is a harbinger, many times, but she doesn't show the work, seemingly expecting the reader to go "oh, that sounds similar enough that it must be the same thing."

Simulmatics was a shambles of a company run by a bright-burning PR hack and staffed by scientists who did not seem to be very good at their jobs. They never owned …