cover image If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

Jill Lepore. Liveright, $28.95 (432p) ISBN 978-1-63149-610-3

In this colorful yet disjointed history, New Yorker writer Lepore (These Truths) traces present-day obsessions with data mining and predictive analytics to a Cold War–era market research firm. Founded by advertising executive Edward Greenfield and MIT political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool in 1959, the Simulmatics Corporation aimed to “estimat[e] probable human behavior by the use of human technology.” After initially struggling to compete with Madison Avenue agencies and their large, in-house data sets, Simulmatics focused on emerging computer technologies and tapped Pool’s government connections to land Defense Department contracts during the Vietnam War. By 1965, the company had an office in Saigon and growing influence within the U.S. government, despite how overpriced and sloppy some officials found its work to be. (At one point, Simulmatics inaccurately forecast that a riot would break out at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night—a prediction that would be impossible to make even with today’s technology.) Though the company shuttered in 1970, Lepore contends, its influence can still be felt in the impact of Silicon Valley on consumer trends and partisan politics. Though Lepore vividly describes Simulmatics’s key players and the politics of the era, she doesn’t fully distinguish between the company’s self-produced hype and its actual accomplishments, and the book’s chronology is confusing. This sporadically entertaining chronicle doesn’t quite live up to its potential. (Sept.)