If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future Kindle Edition
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- James Gleick, New York Review of Books
"Fascinating.... 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.... [with] a nimble fluency that can be exhilarating."
- Seth Mnookin, New York Times Book Review
"Timely.... 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."
- Shannon Bond, NPR
"[A] rich account. . . . 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. . . . As Lepore notes, after the 1960 Kennedy election, the idea that politicians might use advertising, psychological tricks, or even new technology in order to sway elections in their favor was still shocking to the public. But 60 years later, it’s such an accepted part of American political life that it takes a historian to excavate the moment in time where such notions began to cohere."
- J.C. Pan, The New Republic
"A beautifully written and intellectually rigorous account of the origins of the science of predictive analytics and behavioral data science in the cold war era."
- Financial Times
"In If Then, Lepore skillfully argues that their use of technology brought us to this current political climate."
- Lauren LeBlanc, The Observer
"[Lepore] pulls no punches in criticizing the folly of trying to understand human behavior via algorithm, and the corrosive consequences of trying to hack democracy. The result is . . . a perceptive work of historically informed dissent."
- Brendan Driscoll, Booklist [starred review]
"A staff writer for the New Yorker and Harvard professor, Lepore knows how to spin out a winning historical study. Here, she dives deep into matters that have seldom attracted scholarly attention. . . As Lepore convincingly demonstrates, the work of Simulmatics paved the way for later manipulators of psychology and public opinion such as Facebook. . . . A fascinating, expertly guided exploration of a little-known corner of the recent past."
- Kirkus Reviews
"A person can’t help but feel inspired by the riveting intelligence and joyful curiosity of Jill Lepore. Knowing that there is a mind like hers in the world is a hope-inducing thing."
- George Saunders
"Jill Lepore reveals how this forgotten company invented the data-weapons of the future. If Then is simultaneously gripping and absolutely terrifying."
- Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and A World on Fire --This text refers to the hardcover edition.
About the Author
- Publication date : September 15, 2020
- File size : 3196 KB
- Print length : 507 pages
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Language: : English
- ASIN : B085T8DHXD
- Publisher : Liveright; Illustrated edition (September 15, 2020)
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #90,186 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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1. The second half of the book is tight and fact-rich. The information technology content throughout was well-written and at just the right level for the audience and topic. The author tried valiantly, and generally succeeded, to make this important but dry topic interesting.
2. This is a gift book for the sort of person who is impossible to buy for: 60+ white collar/intellectual, preferably from/in the Boston-DC corridor or the SF Bay Area. The older the better. If Republican, send nose plugs. There’s a gratuitous undertone of “how in the world could the wonderful Democrats lose election X” to some of the discussion.
3. This book acknowledges something of crucial importance for American culture. Events 50 years and older are history and we should be treating them as such. Trillions of dollars were spent by funding agencies on Cold War research. Those funders, the actual people, and researchers are getting old and starting to age out. Modulo intelligence concerns, these stories should be captured. Doomed to repeat failures and the like.
The first half ambled in areas of political economics and Cold War military posture outside of the author’s expertise. Stylistically, the first half reads like a group of 20-something research assistants wrote drafts of portions of the book and it was cobbled together by the author. Let’s call it tenured-sloppy. Not just pandemic-sloppy. I’ve noticed some late-career writings by some tenured humanities academics, especially “golden rolodex’ types, share this disjointed and self-indulgent style. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, the author bemoans the humanities crisis, saying fixing it is easier said than done. Well, think global and act local. Get your cronies to establish an editorial process to correct this understandable and natural but malodorous trend. You (the royal you) are too tenured to be effectively managed by your acolytes and peers without some structure within your discipline. You have to police yourselves. There are only so many crotchety independent old snarks like me willing to complain.
Doubt the direct words of Harvard 20-somethings in this? Here’s what I learned from the first half of the book:
1. The tenured Harvard history professor author believes “humanity would, by the twenty-first century, find itself trapped and tormented: stripped bare, driven to distraction, deprived of its senses, interrupted, exploited, directed, connected and disconnected, bought and sold, alienated and coerced, confused, misinformed, and even governed.” I interpret the author as stating all of humanity has been in this state for 20 years. This sounds like 20-something hyperbole to me. Allen Ginsburg would have loved it. Allen Ginsburg was a poet, not a historian.
2. The author really doesn’t like Richard Nixon. The author blurts out negative comments about Nixon irrelevant to the thesis of the book like a sufferer from political Tourette’s syndrome. Maybe Checkers bit her ankle as a child.
3. McCarthy activities went after “supposed Communist subversives”. Not “actual and supposed”, just “supposed”. How in the world did they avoid the actual? And the author thinks McCarthy himself was a poopy-head. That’s about all the information presented. It isn’t mentioned whether he had a dog.
4. The author really likes John F Kennedy. “The election of John F. Kennedy to the White House in 1960 became the stuff of myth and legend. It carries an air of destiny.” #MeToo doesn’t exist in the author’s universe. Just womanizing. The cad. The dreamy, dreamy cad. Wait a minute, the author is from Harvard, and Harvard is in...do you think there’s a little tribal signaling by the young bloods going on? Nah.
5. A historian will quote passages *from novels* of the period *about fictional characters* to support a thesis about real people and events. Several times. A tenured professional historian. This topic has available more than just living memory of what participants had said. Many of the people tangentially involved are still alive and have most of their own teeth.
6. Women students at top colleges wore “skirts and baby blue eye shadow and midnight black mascara” and would look up at a male professor longingly. There was no citation from the period, not even to a Harlequin romance novel, to support this assertion. And I’m certain there is absolutely no projection going on here by 20-somethings.
7. A UC-Berkeley protester in the 1966 "cried out to a crowd aching to hear an indictment of the age of the machine, his voice rasping with exhaustion” over a ban on handing out pamphlets on a specific 25 foot brick walkway on campus. Out of a two square mile campus. And they say over-wrought 20-something purple prose is dead.
8. In the early 1960s, IBM would, upon request, step in and deliver a number of “girls” on Election Night since the “girls” (always in quotes, a signature move by tenured Harvard professors) actually knew how to operate all the equipment. (Get your minds out of the gutter.)
9. You can do a hatchet job on a man suffering from mental illness and his long-suffering wife and, if you are labeled a historian and the man is dead, get away with it. On the side of the Great Divide the author temporarily resides. That’s an “early scholar” kind of move.
10. The Greenfields “would sometimes head up to Cambridge, to visit the Pools on Irving Street, by the Schlesingers and the Galbraiths. Jean Pool loved Patty Greenfield; they’d catch up in the kitchen. America’s most beloved chef, Julia Child, lived next door, at 103 Irving Street; she was close with Jean.” We get it, you live in Cambridge. Does a tenured Harvard professor do this? No, they’d name drop Cabots and Lowells. Plebeians.
11. “Everything in the [1950s and 1960s American] culture told [Bill McPhee] that great men had to be bastards.” Everything. Christian culture, rural and agricultural culture, Hispano culture, Pueblo culture, Navajo culture, New England Yankee culture, Black culture, Asian culture, Jewish culture, Appalachian culture, Scandinavian culture, Women’s culture all pointed to that, according to the author. I respectfully disagree. And I also submit that all those facets are part of “the culture”, and always have been...even in the 1950s and 1960s America. Anything less is just a 2020 cartoon version of what America was, *even to America itself at the time*. Well, maybe that cartoon version was and is alive and well for Harvard 20-somethings.
12. “Stewart Brand broke the story of the coming computer revolution”, presumably in the same universe that Al Gore invented the Internet. History, please, not just your parents’ personal history. Thumbs up for mention of the great Whole Earth Catalog.
13. “Affairs, and fights, and recriminations” were to be expected when white social scientists and their families stayed at beaches. In fact, the author asserts it would only have been noteworthy if they didn’t. No mention of whether police were alerted in advance. #BlackLivesMatter should take note.
14. Male social scientists of the period “really were crapped up: haunted by the war, deluded by Freud, trapped in terrible straits, raised to be strong but not brutal, astute but imperturbable, lines so easy to cross.” I’ve heard that some of the 60000 young American soldiers who died in rice patties and the like in Vietnam, with their last breath expressed those exact same regrets about those tragic social scientists. I sense 20-something Harvard. Couldn’t find “crapped up” in DSM-V...perhaps a misspelling by the tenured Harvard professor.
15. “Eisenhower was a liberal.” No question? Revealed wisdom? Something a 20-something would just throw out, and a professional tenured historian would say a bit more.
16. There isn’t such a thing as an “ill-advised tennis match’’ not involving Bobby Riggs to someone the age of a Harvard tenured professor.
17. “Hinkle-pinkle!’ (OK, Hinkle-pinkle is cute.)
PS: When the author publishes a Kindle book, someone should make in-text references directly link to the attached reference section. And skip the index on a Kindle book. It’s 2020.
PPS: there might be a misquote of sorts about an honorary Harvard doctorate recipient in the book. The original quote sort of came out of nowhere in the text...one of the few current references.
[“How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Zuckerberg blinked three times, apparently shocked that Hatch could know so little about so basic a matter. “Senator,” he said, “we run ads.”]
might also be described as
[“How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Zuckerberg *winked* three times, apparently shocked that Hatch could *ask out loud* about so basic a matter. “Senator,” he said *averting a knowing glance*, “we...run ads.”]
Tomato, tomahto...generally better not to present interpretations of thoughts and intentions of living people without actual supporting evidence. For example, asking them directly and reporting their response. Maybe with commentary from others. If it’s current, it’s journalism, not the free-form half-novels of history.
PPPS: I’m keeping hinkle-pinkle and the author can’t have it. My new favorite word...
But I yearned for more context. She doesn't explore the rise of first rate quantitative work by ethical political scientists (nor does she describe the advances in other social sciences, especially psychology and economics). For instance, James Coleman worked for Simulmatics, but from If Then you'd never know the importance of his landmark statistical study of education equity (1966) or an equally dazzling qualitative study of adolescent peer pressure (1961). When she does explore context, it's familiar territory--the 1960 and 1964 elections, the growing opposition to the Vietnam War. But like all her books, this is hard to put down.
First, mentions are made over and over and over of “models” being developed and used, but there are absolutely no details given to help the reader understand what these models actually are and how they work (or don’t work). Without some such understanding, the book becomes a history of assorted eccentrics working on and around a black box.
Second, the writing style is formulaic and frenetic (cf. one reviewer characterizes it, positively, as “chirpy”). My main gripe with respect to style is that the author makes extraordinarily heavy use of literary devices – esp. amplification, (a)syndetons, and hyperbole – that are employed over and over and over and over.
As anyone who has ever read Lepore's work knows, she has this amazing knack for choosing characters that help you see a side of a story that you thought you understood, but clearly didn't. Whether you're passionate about data or AI, a 1960s history buff, or just curious to understand how we arrived out our contemporary social media-soaked political landscape, this book will take you on a journey that is utterly enlightening.
A quote from a relevant character in the first chapter sets the stage brilliantly: "The new underworld is made up of innocent and well-intentioned people who work with slide rules and calculating machines and computers... Most of these people are highly educated, many of them are PhDs, and none that I have met have malignant political designs on the American public. They may, however, radically reconstruct the American political system, build new politics, and even modify revered and venerable American institutions -- facts of which they are blissfully ignorant. -- Eugene Burdick."