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The Bumbling 1960s Data Scientists Who Anticipated Facebook and Google Posted on : Sep 15 - 2020

In late December 1960, Harper’s Magazine hit the newsstands with a blockbuster of a story by a freelancer named Thomas Morgan: John F. Kennedy’s razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon the previous month had been orchestrated by a top-secret computer called the “People Machine.” This mysterious device, which had been invented by an equally mysterious company called the Simulmatics Corporation, had, according to Harper’s, concluded that taking a firm stand on civil rights and confronting anti-Catholic bigotry directly, both of which Kennedy did, would help the young senator from Massachusetts win the presidency.

In a period of rising anxiety about both communist brainwashing and automation, this was big news. The story of a “robot campaign strategist” analyzing voter rolls and public opinion polls was picked up by media across the country; one newspaper editorial described the People Machine as a device that would make “the tyrannies of Hitler, Stalin and their forebears look like the inept fumbling of a village bully.” For a brief period, the scandal threatened to delegitimize Kennedy’s presidency before it had even begun.

But the Harper’s story, it turned out, was little more than a hacky publicity stunt by a company propagandist: Within a few months, Morgan, who’d edited the very Simulmatics reports he’d described in his magazine story, had been given an ownership stake in the company to go along with his title of “information manager.” Therein lies the paradox at the heart of “If Then,” Jill Lepore’s fascinating but flawed new book about the company she says “invented the future”: Her attempt to use Simulmatics as a parable for and precursor to “the data-mad and near-totalitarian 21st century” is hamstrung by the fact that it failed at almost everything it tried to do — oftentimes spectacularly so.

Simulmatics, which opened up shop in 1959 and ceased operations in 1970, was the brainchild of a backslapping, glad-handing, résumé-faking huckster named Ed Greenfield. Frustrated that Adlai Stevenson, his preferred presidential candidate, kept losing, Greenfield dreamed of using a combination of “information extraction” and “voter prediction” to finally lead Stevenson, “the best man, even though he wasn’t the most electable man,” to victory. Stevenson, of course, didn’t even win the 1960 Democratic nomination — but no matter; by that time, Greenfield’s shop was up and running.

And what a shop it was. Despite Lepore’s repeated references to the Simulmatics team as “the best and the brightest,” the group that Greenfield assembled was, well, not that. There was Bill McPhee, a manic-depressive mathematician who wrote some of Simulmatics’ early data analysis programs from a locked ward on Bellevue and had a habit of abusing and humiliating his wife in front of their 6-year-old daughter; Eugene Burdick, a political scientist / literary celebrity / Ballantine Ale pitchman whose writing, according to Lepore, was less subtle than a sledgehammer; and Ithiel de Sola Pool, “a numbers guy who taught at M.I.T. and walked the halls of the Pentagon” but who seemed to lack the basic competency and knowledge expected of a scientist. (Later in his career, Pool’s writings helped ensure the internet would be free of government regulation. In an interview with Lepore, Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker and a onetime friend of Pool’s, called him “the most corrupt social scientist I had ever met, without question.”) View More