If Then (2020, Liveright) 3 stars

The Simulmatics Corporation, launched during the Cold War, mined data, targeted voters, manipulated consumers, destabilized …

Lots of potential but less than the sum of its parts

2 stars

I am a total sucker for learning anything and everything I can about the mid 20th century think tanks and defense contractors that helped invent American technocracy. And yet I find myself lukewarm on this book at best.

The weakest part of the book is its core thesis: it attempts to make Simulmatics, a short-lived company that was far more bark than bite, into a harbinger of the modern data-driven, democracy-destroying privacy nightmare we live in today. The author fails to do this. Oh, she makes the claim that it is a harbinger, many times, but she doesn't show the work, seemingly expecting the reader to go "oh, that sounds similar enough that it must be the same thing."

Simulmatics was a shambles of a company run by a bright-burning PR hack and staffed by scientists who did not seem to be very good at their jobs. They never owned any computer equipment, instead renting time on university machines. Among other disasters, the scientists who worked there had a contract with The New York Times for the 1962 midterm election which culminated in them installing a giant, expensive IBM mainframe at the Times offices and then... not knowing how to use the thing. Simulmatics existed during a time that I have spent significant time researching on my own, and I had never heard of them. There is no reference to them in any of my extensive notes on ARPA records from the late 60s and early 70s (granted this was in the twilight of the company). It's pretty clear they were small fries. Interesting small fries but I think a book about the Rand Corporation or SDC would be much, much more suited to the thesis of "this was the harbinger of the Facebook adtech privacy nightmare."

I'll admit, I am coming at this from the perspective of an amateur computer historian. What I see here, mostly, is an author who ran across a really genuinely interesting company called Simulmatics when she was going through the papers of Ithiel de Sola Pool. She says as much that she "began to think there might be a book in those boxes", which is something I've thought many times sitting in archives. Most of the time, there is not a book in those boxes. I think this is one of those times where it should not have been a book. Maybe this is cynical of me, but I think this is a case where Lepore, who friends assure me is usually a much, much better writer than this, was able to convince a publisher based on her sterling reputation and the exquisite timeliness of the subject matter, that there was a book there.

The best thing about the book is its insistence on not erasing women in the narrative of Simulmatics. This includes the detailed stories of several women employed by the company, as well as the wives of the company's founding members. "They treat their wives like dirt" is a refrain in the book, and one Lepore never lets you forget, with good reason. I love her willingness to paint hucksters and abusers and exactly what they are, and the pains she takes to show that a lot of the scientists involved in Simulmatics were blustery fools who literally could not operate a computer unless a highly trained woman was there to run the machinery for them.

One of my favorite things about the book was its portrayal of Ithiel de Sola Pool, one of the Simulmatics founders, who was one of the few people there who seemed to be genuinely good at what he did (unless you count the company founder Greenfield, who was genuinely good at being a huckster). Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, knew him very well as they were both in Vietnam at the same time doing overlapping working for the Department of Defense. According to Ellsberg, when Pool learned of the leak he was shocked because Ellsberg would surely lose his security clearance.

"I was expecting to go to prison for the rest of my life," Ellsberg wryly said later, "and Ithiel wanted to know whether I understood that I'd never get another dollar from the federal government."

Oddly, there is a diversion in the middle of the book about Eugene Burdick, an author of political thrillers who had some connection to Simulmatics, and whose last novel was heavily based on their business. Lepore needles him for rushing out half-baked books in the name of timeliness. Ironic, considering I just finished a prime example of that exact phenomenon.

@darius yeah, I think if the book hadn't tried to do the harbinger argument it would have been more compelling. I mean, part of what was missing from her attempt to mirror Simulmatics and Cambridge Analytica was an acknowledgment that...even by the time this book came out people had kind of forgotten about Cambridge Analytica. I might assign the essay Lepore did basically summarizing the book in The New Yorker in future undergrad classes because I've found that a lot of the time students think that the dilemmas they're grappling with are brand new and unprecedented and it's a good reality check for them, but the "Simulmatics brought us this future" framing feels more like a thing said to sell books than a coherent argument.