A brilliant, revelatory account of the Cold War origins of the data-mad, algorithmic twenty-first century, from the author of the acclaimed international bestseller, These Truths.
The Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959, mined data, targeted voters, accelerated news, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge--decades before Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Cambridge Analytica. Silicon Valley likes to imagine it has no past but the scientists of Simulmatics are the long-dead grandfathers of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Borrowing from psychological warfare, they used computers to predict and direct human behavior, deploying their “People Machine” from New York, Cambridge, and Saigon for clients that included John Kennedy’s presidential campaign, the New York Times, Young & Rubicam, and, during the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense. Jill Lepore, distinguished Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, unearthed from the archives the almost unbelievable story of this long-vanished corporation, and of the women hidden behind it. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lepore argues, Simulmatics invented the future by building the machine in which the world now finds itself trapped and tormented, algorithm by algorithm.
“A person can't help but feel inspired by the riveting intelligence and joyful curiosity of Jill Lepore. Knowing that there is a mind like hers in the world is a hope-inducing thing.”
“Everything Lepore writes is distinguished by intelligence, eloquence, and fresh insight. If Then is that, and even more: It’s absolutely fascinating, excavating a piece of little-known American corporate history that reveals a huge amount about the way we live today and the companies that define the modern era.”
“Data science, Jill Lepore reminds us in this brilliant book, has a past, and she tells it through the engrossing story of Simulmatics, the tiny, long-forgotten company that helped invent our data-obsessed world, in which prediction is seemingly the only knowledge that matters. A captivating, deeply incisive work.”
—Frederik Logevall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam
“Think today’s tech giants invented data mining and market manipulation? Think again. In this page-turning, eye-opening history, Jill Lepore reveals the Cold War roots of the tech-saturated present, in a thrilling tale that moves from the campaigns of Eisenhower and Kennedy to ivied think tanks, Madison Avenue ad firms, and the hamlets of Vietnam. Told with verve, grace, and humanity, If Then is an essential, sobering story for understanding our times.”
—Margaret O’Mara, author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America
“It didn’t all start with Facebook. We have long been fascinated with the potential of using computing technology to predict human behavior. In another fast-paced narrative, Jill Lepore brilliantly uncovers the history of the Simulmatics Corp, which launched the volatile mix of computing, politics and personal behavior that now divides our nation, feeds on private information, and weakens the strength our democratic institutions. If you want to know where this all started, you need not look any further--read this book!”
— Julian Zelizer, author of Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker and the Rise of the New Republican Party
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, her many books include the international bestseller, These Truths.