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.
Lepore is a brilliant and prolific historian with an eye for unusual and revealing stories, and this one is a remarkable saga, sometimes comical, sometimes ominous ... Simulmatics...is almost completely forgotten. Yet Lepore finds in it a plausible untold origin story for our current panopticon: a world of constant surveillance, if not by the state then by megacorporations that make vast fortunes by predicting and manipulating our behavior—including, most insidiously, our behavior as voters ... Deeply researched, written with elegance and passion, If Then gives a vivid picture of [Simulatics' executives'] lives, including their often miserable wives, suffering 'the bad bargains of the middle-class marriages of the 1950s.'
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.