Jill Lepore’s ‘If Then’ excavates the story of Simulmatics Corporation, the forerunner of today’s online companies mining personal information.
A US presidential election, bruising wars in an emerging economy, and race riots influenced by the dark arts of data collection. You could be forgiven for thinking a Harvard historian has written a book about the present moment. A nominee for the FT/McKinsey business book of the year, If Then: How Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future is an exciting fable of the future deciphered by untangling the life of a little known company, Simulmatics, from the mid-1900s.
Good historians are great storytellers who connect the past to the present with far-sighted fluency. In Harvard’s Jill Lepore however, we discover that special breed – a great story-finder. In the midst of chronicling world-changing events, she also found herself in the enviable role of archaeologist. Stumbling upon the story of a long forgotten enterprise, she excavated the tumultuous tale of a notable ancestor of Silicon valley’s mega corporations.
Simulmatics was founded in 1959, and went public in 1961. It was the brainchild of the Madison Avenue advertising impresario Ed Greenfield and the men he enlisted. Unknown to many, this obscure corporation is cast by Lepore as the “missing link” of the information age. Her captivating account lashes together a historian’s eye for detail with a journalist’s unforgiving candour.
What she manages to uncover is no less than a scandalous scoop. An outfit that tugged the computing power of its day into unravelling social networks, crafting political manipulation, and profiteering from it. Except, this happened over half a century ago and provided the uncanny premonition of everything we are living through today.
Here’s what we missed when this story was consigned to obscurity in MIT’s archives. As far back as the 1950s, Ed Greenfield set out to create an analytics powerhouse that could predict human behaviour. It was to be built by a band of brilliant believers: a political theorist, a mathematician, a behavioural scientist, a market researcher, and a computer scientist. Men who would massage the mass collection of data into an enabler of audacious goals.
Whether it was winning a presidential election by manoeuvring the messaging, or quashing rebellion by spreading misinformation, Or policing dissent by predicting it before it took place, the “What If” men, as they came to be known, promised the lure of simulating prior knowledge. “They are the long-dead, white-whiskered grandfathers of Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin and Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen and Elon Musk.” Lepore declares.
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