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Simulmatics As Simulacrum? A Conversation With Historian Jill Lepore

Historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore speaks at the magazine's festival in 2010.
Historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore speaks at the magazine's festival in 2010.

We keep learning more about the effect of Cambridge Analytica, a small political consulting company, on the 2016 election. Britain’s Channel 4 News published recent reporting which revealed that “3.5 million Black Americans were categorised by Donald Trump’s campaign as ‘Deterrence’ – voters they wanted to stay home on election day.”

But the ideas behind Cambridge Analytica’s tactics weren’t new, according to historian Jill Lepore. Where a 1960s’-era company called Simulmatics failed, the firm succeeded in “[modeling] and [manipulating] American voters,” as Lepore writes in The New Yorker.

More from that article:

Decades before Facebook and Google and Cambridge Analytica and every app on your phone, Simulmatics’ founders thought of it all: they had the idea that, if they could collect enough data about enough people and write enough good code, everything, one day, might be predicted—every human mind simulated and then directed by targeted messages as unerring as missiles. For its first mission, Simulmatics aimed to win the White House back for the Democratic Party.

That piece is excerpted from Lepore’s new book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future,

From The New York Times review of If Then:

Lepore’s frustrations — with how what was once thought of as propaganda or psychological warfare was subsumed and legitimized by behavioral scientists, who rechristened the field with the anodyne label of “mass communication”; with the billions of dollars of Cold War funding that strangled the humanities and transformed American research universities into military-academic outposts dependent on federal grants; with the conservative opponents of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society who killed a proposal for a government agency to set up “ethical guidelines, safeguards and rules” for the use of the massive amount of personal data held by the federal government; with the fact that the Privacy Act of 1974 recognized that the aggregation of this data, “while essential to the efficient operations of the government, has greatly magnified the harm to individual privacy that can occur” but failed to protect that same data from private corporations; with the generations of mostly white, overwhelmingly male tech evangelists who lacked the imagination and the curiosity to consider the ways their simplistic libertarian fantasies might affect people who weren’t as privileged or as lucky as they were; with the billionaire leaders of Google and Facebook, whose “swaggering, devil-may-care ethical ambition” begins and ends with meaningless mottoes like “don’t be evil” because “doing good did not come into it”; with America in 2020, where “the only knowledge that counts is prediction, and … corporations extract wealth by way of the collection of data and the manipulation of attention and the profit of prophecy” — should be our frustrations as well.

We talk to Jill Lepore about If Then, and what Simulmatics and their mission tells us about today.

Copyright 2020 WAMU 88.5

Rupert Allman