It’s easy to look at the issues of modern technology— privacy, property, misinformation—and assume it’s all a product of the last ten or so years. Before then, it was all clunky computers and waiting for hours for a single file to download, so it’s logical to think many of the philosophical conversations we’re having about our current technological state must be solely unique to this very moment in time. Right?
That’s what Jill Lepore thought too, before she discovered the secret beginnings of all of this “how far is too far?” technology controversy with roots far earlier than she’d imagined. In her new book If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, the author and acclaimed professor of American history delves into the complex tale of the Simulatics Corporation of the early sixties and how it laid the groundwork for much of today’s technological and political landscapes. Through Town Hall Seattle, she and fellow historian Margaret O’Mara sat down over Zoom livestream to discuss her findings and further unpack just how influential this virtually unknown company truly was. Now, I went into this livestream having never heard of Simulatics, or the book, or even Lepore herself, and yet, I was hooked from the get go.
When Lepore was researching for a New Yorker article on polling data, she stumbled upon Simulmatics, a company known for creating election simulations for the Kennedy campaign in 1960. She ended up finding a cache of written archives at MIT, mostly donated from one of the late employee’s wives. From there, she discovered that this simple bit of code for polling populations slowly spread from politics to advertising in the early sixties and eventually fell into the hands of the Department of Defense during Vietnam and the Cold War. Simulations became a key weapon in ideological warfare. With this technology, the US had the ability to run accurate simulations, now with various populations on the other side of the communist-controlled Iron Curtain instead of American voters, and a variety of pro-capitalist messages instead of policy issues. It was critical to see what ideas could actually change minds before sending them out in order to ensure they would be effective. Over half a century ago, the nation was faced with the same questions about privacy and media manipulation that we’re still struggling with to this day.
But while anyone can simply write about history, it takes a true historian to see the ramifications events that took place decades ago have on the modern day. That’s just what Lepore does. She delves into the limited syntax that early coders worked with, and how the constraints they had configured, specifically not having any set coding language, ended up being oddly specific. For the election simulation, for example, Simulatics took the population of voters, divided them up into four hundred eighty distinct voter types, and ran simulations across fifty varying issues. And to this day, polling simulators use the same system, all based on the limits of a program built in the fifties. Lepore explains that the result is we end up with harsh divisions between overly-specific voter groups, as they’re told that their interests directly oppose those of others. Here, Lepore smiles at the absurdity of it all as she questions, “in a certain way, did the fact that if-then statements were really easy to use in 1956 mean that now, we have this super hyperpolarized quality?” It’s clear that the implications are pretty dire.
Even if you know nothing about the topic going into it, as I did, Lepore brings enthusiasm and an expansive breadth of knowledge with her that makes it impossible to be uninterested. Lepore’s perspective, above all else, is the backbone of the discussion. One of the aspects of this unique point of view I couldn’t help but marvel at was her smooth interjection of how unhealthily we’re taught to revel in the greatness of these white, male voices in the tech industry. She even spoke of the wives of these men on more than one occasion and with compassion, like they were more than just “The Wives.” And her historical view on these tech advancements contextualizes these obscure parts of coding history and makes them relevant and accessible for all, regardless of previous knowledge. It’s certainly a lot to unpack, especially in the time of a global pandemic as we’re forced to turn to our own technology now more than ever! In general, I’m not a big nonfiction or history reader, but I can genuinely say that if it’s even half as good as this livestream, I’m beyond excited to get my hands on her book!
Simulmatics and the Advent of Data-Mining livestreamed via Town Hall Seattle on September 18, 2020. For more information and to access the livestream, see here.