If Then: Book summary and reviews of If Then by Jill Lepore

If Then

How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

by Jill Lepore

If Then by Jill Lepore X
If Then by Jill Lepore
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Book Summary

A 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, 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 their "People Machine" from New York, Washington, Cambridge, and even Saigon, Simulmatics' clients included the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign, the New York Times, the Department of Defense, and dozens of major manufacturers: Simulmatics had a hand in everything from political races to the Vietnam War to the Johnson administration's ill-fated attempt to predict race riots. The company's collapse was almost as rapid as its ascent, a collapse that involved failed marriages, a suspicious death, and bankruptcy. Exposed for false claims, and even accused of war crimes, it closed its doors in 1970 and all but vanished. Until Lepore came across the records of its remains.

The scientists of Simulmatics believed they had invented "the A-bomb of the social sciences." They did not predict that it would take decades to detonate, like a long-buried grenade. But, in the early years of the twenty-first century, that bomb did detonate, creating a world in which corporations collect data and model behavior and target messages about the most ordinary of decisions, leaving people all over the world, long before the global pandemic, crushed by feelings of helplessness. This history has a past; If Then is its cautionary tale.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Lepore knows how to spin out a winning historical study. Here, she dives deep into matters that have seldom attracted scholarly attention, delivering a story that hinges on the discovery, in the late 1950s, that computers and languages...could be used to gauge and influence voter preferences...A fascinating, expertly guided exploration of a little-known corner of the recent past." - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"[Lepore] pulls no punches in criticizing the folly of trying to understand human behavior via algorithm, and the corrosive consequences of trying to hack democracy. The result is...a perceptive work of historically informed dissent." - Booklist (starred review)

"Scholars of American history and technology will appreciate the extensive research that went into this book, while general readers will be swept up by the novelistic scope of the story." - Library Journal

"Though Lepore vividly describes Simulmatics's key players and the politics of the era, she doesn't fully distinguish between the company's self-produced hype and its actual accomplishments, and the book's chronology is confusing. This sporadically entertaining chronicle doesn't quite live up to its potential." - Publishers Weekly

"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." - Fredrik Logevall, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam

"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

"Everything Jill 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." - Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book

The information about If Then shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's online-magazine that keeps our members abreast of notable and high-profile books publishing in the coming weeks. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author of this book and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

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Author Information

Jill Lepore Author Biography

Photo: Rose Lincoln

Jill Lepore is a staff writer for the New Yorker. Her books include The Name of War, which won the Bancroft Prize; New York Burning, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history; Book of Ages, a finalist for the National Book Award; The Secret History of Wonder Woman; and the international bestseller, These Truths: A History of the United States. Later this year, she will publish her fourteenth book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. Lepore received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1995 and is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University.

Author Interview

Name Pronunciation
Jill Lepore: Jill luh-POOR

Other books by Jill Lepore at BookBrowse
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