If Then | Jill Lepore

Summary of: If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future
By: Jill Lepore


Step into the world of the Simulmatics Corporation, a long-forgotten pioneer in the realms of predictive analytics and behavioral data science. In Jill Lepore’s captivating book, ‘If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future’, you will discover the intriguing history of a small company whose ambitious pursuit of understanding human behavior through computer simulations influenced significant events and figures during the 1960s. Traverse through the tumultuous journey of Simulmatics as it attempts to revolutionize politics, advertising, and even war, only to face multiple setbacks and eventual bankruptcy. Unravel their legacy and draw parallels to modern-day giants such as Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Cambridge Analytica.

Simulmatics: Predicting Human Behavior

Jill Lepore’s book “Simulmatics” is an engaging account of an obscure company that sold computer simulations to predict human behavior during the 1960s, a period that shaped American history. Lepore sheds light on how Simulmatics theory influenced modern predictive analytics, with applications in tech giants such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Cambridge Analytica. Lepore critically evaluates the limits and folly of drawing insights on human psychology from algorithms. Highly praised by literary reviews and listed as a top book of 2020 by The Observer and O, The Oprah Magazine, this text offers a fascinating perspective on the origins of behavioral data science.

Simulating Humanity

In Simulmatics Corporation, founded by Edward L. Greenfield, computer science, mathematics, and behavioral science experts worked together to automate prediction and manipulation of human behavior. Yet, after completing works for major clients such as John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and the US Department of Defense, the company went bankrupt in 1970. Unfortunately, it could not provide useful predictions or analyses for most of its clients. Lepore reports the company’s history, leading readers to ponder the issues surrounding ethical and moral implications of such technology.

Predicting Voter Behavior

After the Democrats lost the 1952 presidential election, Greenfield founded the Simulmatics Corporation with the idea of predicting and simulating human behavior using computer analytics. Through the analysis of social and economic data, Simulmatics could predict how voters would respond to different campaign messages. This book captures a historic moment in which technology was being used to shape political campaigns.

Simulmatics and Political Manipulation

In her book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” Jill Lepore explores Simulmatics Corporation’s role in the 1960 presidential election. Ed Greenfield hired Alex Bernstein to help write a program that could track voters. Simulmatics proposed sorting voters into 480 types based on various criteria. The Democratic Party employed them in May 1959, and their report stated that the party would win if it performed better in civil rights. John F. Kennedy likely followed Simulmatics’ strategies, and northern Black voters proved critical to his success. However, their role in the election sparked a backlash, sparking a debate over the use of computers in politics.

Simulmatics: Rise and Fall

Lepore’s book explains how Simulmatics, despite backlash, secured contracts with various clients. One of the significant events the book highlights is The New York Times acquiring an IBM computer before the 1962 elections and hiring Simulmatics to help analyze results that later turned out to be a massive fiasco. The team could not handle an IBM computer, leading to several other failures, causing The Times to terminate its contract with the firm.

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