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Tuesday, September 22, 2020
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Long before the world grew concerned about the invasive practices of Cambridge Analytica, Google, and Facebook, there was the Simulmatics Corporation, a short-lived data analytics pioneer created and run by oddballs, from charismatic self-promoters to eccentric social scientists. Hatched in the late 1950’s, the Simulmatics Corporation unwittingly became the prototype for the ever-present Google, creating a mechanism to mine every detail of human behavior — for commercial and political profit. Their data simulator, which they christened “the People Machine,” churned out predictions on voting behavior for example, that was sold to the JFK campaign for the 1960 Presidential election. Madison Avenue would also use Simulmatics, and thus it became the new prophet.
Jill Lepore, in her thrilling new book, If Then, explores the nature and range of The People Machine — and its goal to predict behavior, whether commercial or political, and manipulate the outcome. Lepore, staff writer for The New Yorker, and the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, excavates a forgotten company whose legacy in predictive analytics is nothing short of the data-mad, algorithmic world we live in now, besieged by the next notification informing what we’ll buy, what matters to us, and how we’ll vote.
In conversation with Dan Schnur, Professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at USC and at the University of California, Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. He is the founder of the USC/L.A. Times Statewide Poll.