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 sets out to tell this forgotten history, the long-lost backstory to the methods, and the arrogance, of Silicon Valley.
What Lepore’s rich account unearths is the impetus behind the project, a set of attitudes that continue to drive psychographic microtargeting efforts today ... Lepore’s exceptional skill as storyteller and her sharp eye for seemingly quotidian details and small coincidences lend the Simulmatics world an intimate—and at times deliciously gossipy—feeling, which serves to underscore how tightly knit this particular echelon was.
... fascinating but flawed ... [Lepore's] attempt to use Simulmatics as a parable for and precursor to “the data-mad and near-totalitarian 21st century” is hamstrung by the fact that it failed at almost everything it tried to do — oftentimes spectacularly so ... Despite Lepore’s repeated references to the Simulmatics team as “the best and the brightest,” the group that Greenfield assembled was, well, not that ... Lepore undermines her attempt to elide over the differences between Simulmatics’ ambitions and its accomplishments by quoting or summarizing post-mortems from the company’s clients ... Over the last decade, Lepore, a Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer, has repeatedly shown herself to be an uncommonly astute and insightful interpreter of American history, and one of her many strengths is the moral clarity that infuses her writing. Lately, however, it feels almost as if she’s trying to stanch the flow of hatred, misinformation, racism and venality that threatens to overwhelm the country by the sheer volume of her work ... This prolificness likely explains why her latest effort feels as if it was rushed out the door before it was ready. When she’s at her best, Lepore’s writing has a nimble fluency that can be exhilarating. Here, however, events are described out of order, crucial context is missing and stylistic tics become intrusive ... But the fact that Simulmatics can’t support Lepore’s narrative shouldn’t detract from the importance of the story she’s trying to tell. Lepore’s frustrations should be our frustrations as well ... That Lepore overstates Simulmatics’ role in this tale does not make her ultimate conclusions any less true, or any less terrifying.
Lepore weaves her narrative across continents and through time with engaging, conversational prose. Her characters' personalities, families, affairs, fights and constant gossiping come alive, thanks to extensive troves of family papers and interviews with those closest to them. At the same time, she braids in the larger context ... But at the heart of the book is a dissonance that Lepore never really resolves. How much did Simulmatics matter? Was it 'effective but sinister,' as portrayed in a bestselling thriller by Eugene Burdick, a political scientist who had worked with Greenfield? Or, as the Kennedy campaign contended, was it 'ineffective and duplicitous'?