Jill Lepore - "If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future" - Virtual Event

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - 7:00pm - 8:00pm
Event Presenter/Author: 
Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore will discuss If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

Presented in partnership with Chicago Humanities Festival

Virtual event

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About the book: 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 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, Simulmatics proposed to predict and manipulate the future by way of the computer simulation of human behavior. 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. The company’s collapse was almost as rapid as its ascent. 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.

About the author: Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and Affiliate Professor of Law at Harvard University. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker, and host of the podcast, The Last Archive. Her many books include These Truths: A History of the United States (2018), an international bestseller which was named one of Time magazine's top ten non-fiction books of the decade.

Event Location: 
Virtual