Collect Data, Influence Votes: 'If Then' Traces The Genesis Of Data-Driven Politics

Sep 15, 2020
Originally published on September 15, 2020 3:06 pm

Decades before Google or Facebook existed, a Madison Avenue advertising man started a company called Simulmatics based on a then-revolutionary method of using computers to forecast how people would behave.

Formed in 1959, Simulmatics charged clients a hefty fee to access its "people machine" — a computer program that drew on polling information and behavioral science to predict mathematically the impact of an advertising pitch or political message.

The New Yorker's Jill Lepore writes about Simulmatics in her new book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. She describes company founder Ed Greenfield as a "small-time operator" with an interest in liberal causes.

"He was a very devoted liberal ... and got into political consulting, which is what a lot of advertising agencies had done, mostly for Republicans," Lepore says. "But Greenfield wanted to bring political consulting to Democrats."

Simulmatics began working for the Democratic National Committee ahead of the 1960 election. Based on data prediction models, company analysts advised John F. Kennedy, then a long-shot candidate, to take a stronger position on civil rights.

"In the fall of 1960, everything that Simulmatics recommended Kennedy do Kennedy did," Lepore says. "And so when he won, Simulmatics took credit."

At the time, Simulmatics drew condemnation from scholars and political leaders who saw it as a threat to democracy. But now, 60 years later, the company's data collection practices and predictive models have become commonplace among political campaigns.

"They're collecting data about you in order to send you messages that will affect how you vote. That's now what our politics has become," Lepore says. "Especially [now that] we're stuck in our houses. That's really all that we have. We're not talking to people on the street or even answering the door or chatting with people about what we might do. We're just bits of data being manipulated."


If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore
Liveright

Interview Highlights

On how she came across the story of Simulmatics

In 2015, I had an assignment from The New Yorker to write a kind of an assessment of the ... polling industry. And I wrote a piece called "Politics and the New Machine." And it struck me at the time, really early in my research, that polling is ... obsolete in that with the advent of data analytics companies, data science, modern data, modern political data science, you don't have to call somebody up and ask them a hundred questions to know how they might vote or what they believe about [Joe] Biden's latest speech or [President] Trump's latest action, because ... you can collect data about that. That's how politics actually works. So I was interested in that and for the purpose of the piece and answering, like, when did that begin? If polling is being replaced by data science, when did that begin? And then that took me to Simulmatics in the 1960 election work.

On the partnership between Simulmatics founder Ed Greenfield and "Wild" Bill McPhee

[McPhee] was a very erratic genius, and he worked in the field of voting behavior, trying to use what we know about election returns and public opinion polls to come up with a mathematical model that could tell you how to predict voters' behavior. And he came up with this thing for his Ph.D. dissertation, and then Greenfield ... said, "This is it! This is it! Ever since the election of 1952, I've been trying to find a way that we could use computers to influence political campaigns!" And so he brought McPhee on board, and he turned his doctoral dissertation into a commercial product that would found a for-profit company.

I think what Greenfield didn't quite get was McPhee was a little wild-eyed. During the time he was doing that research, he was manic depressive. His wife was home with young children, had him committed to Bellevue. Most of this work, he did a great deal of it, he did while in [the New York psychiatric hospital] Bellevue.

On how Simulmatics opened a debate about the future of democracy

I think the argument that wins out eventually, honestly, is the argument that's put forward by Ithiel de Sola Pool, who's the [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] political scientist, who's the chairman of the research board for this new company, Simulmatics. He says, you want a political candidate to have as much information as possible. This is information that our technology and scientific research is now able to provide to political campaigns. So who wants to stand in the way of knowledge? Knowledge is a good thing and progress will be when the other side also has a people machine. If we have two people machines fighting against one another, then that's fair. And that's actually the argument that wins.

On how Simulmatics, made up entirely of white men, was trying to understand Black people and women

What really struck me was so much anguish around the disconnect between these men. They're white liberal men trying to understand the mind of other people — the minds in particular of Black voters. So it's white men trying to understand Black people. And then the consumers were mainly women. So they're trying to figure out how women think. And meanwhile, they all treat their wives like crap. It's this horrible kind of a very bad bargain of 1950s marriages. Some of these people had decent marriages, but the rest of them, almost all of them, ended up in divorce and quite acrimonious divorces.

There's something that I think really prefigures the arrogance of Silicon Valley, where these guys, the sort of [Mark] Zuckerberg kind of guy who stands above us all and tries to figure out how women and people of color think and how they can be influenced. The irony of Simulmatics trying to figure out what message the Kennedy campaign should send about civil rights in 1960, when Black men are sitting in at lunch counters all across the South, Black men and women are demonstrating on the streets. Like, do we need to write a computer program to predict what the effect would be of taking a stronger position on civil rights for Black voters? It's kind of nuts, but it's also very much the world that we now live in. ...

It's really clear that this company — which is founded on a commitment to the idea that people who aren't white men are mysterious and need to be decoded by computers — kind of really can't endure the absurdity of that idea. It kind of collapses in on itself. - Jill Lepore

It's really clear that this company — which is founded on a commitment to the idea that people who aren't white men are mysterious and need to be decoded by computers — kind of really can't endure the absurdity of that idea. It kind of collapses in on itself.

On Simulmatics doing public opinion research on Vietnamese peasants for the Department of Defense during the Vietnam War

They also did a lot of measurement of popular opinion among Vietnamese peasants. And so they would drive out with a military escort or be flown in to a village with teams of Vietnamese translators, most of these were college students, and ask questions. They would administer ... a really long questionnaire ... 100 questions about, like, if you had a television, what would you watch? They're trying to construct, essentially, a mathematical model of the Vietnamese peasant mind in order to figure out what are the right messages to be sending to these people to ensure their loyalty. It's cockamamie. But it is an extension of the logic of the voting research: You gather enough public opinion information, enough demographic information, and then devise a model and then you make a prediction. ...

The questions were largely, bafflingly irrelevant to these people's lives and the kind of daily suffering that they're enduring during this war. The whole thing is just kind of a travesty. And what surprised me a bit was how clearly the Defense Department understood that it was a travesty and yet continued to fund it. There's just file after file after file in the National Archives of people at the Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the Department of Defense that oversaw the Simulmatics project, saying, "This stuff is nuts. These people are doing meaningless research, and we're paying them again and again and again for it."

On why Simulmatics disappears after the '60s

I think it completely vanished. I had certainly not heard of it. There's not really a scholarship about it. One of the reasons that it vanished is Ed Greenfield's own dissolution. Most of the records of the company were in New York, where the headquarters were, and the company filed for bankruptcy and ... pretty much [I] think all the archives were destroyed. ... There are no corporation records. ... A lot of what I had to do to work on this project was piece together the archives from different institutional collections.

On how the Simulmatics story connects to our current election

What Simulmatics started doing was really trying to convince the Democratic Party to count Black voters. Black voters matter, really, was Ed Greenfield's message. We're going to show you that mathematically. We're going to build a computer. We're going to build a machine that can show you that Black voters matter, because we need to be stronger on civil rights. It starts with this really noble commitment to civil rights.

But what it produces is the world that we have today, where we're all so segmented and micro-messaged to that we have no sense of the common good any longer. Which is how a democracy has to work. Like, we actually are not supposed to be going into a voting booth or sealing a ballot and sticking in an envelope and voting the way our demographic micro-segment says we must, because we're actually supposed to be looking at that ballot and thinking about what's good for everyone. That notion of the public good and the public interest, which is the ground on which a democracy stands, is falling away from beneath our feet.

Roberta Shorrock and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. You know how when you go online, ads pop up for products you've shown an interest in or political messages that seem tailored for you appear on YouTube videos? Our guest today, Jill Lepore, has a story about a company formed at the end of the 1950s that had a plan to accumulate data about people's habits and preferences and use it to predict how they'll vote or shop.

While the practice is a fact of life today, 70 years ago, the idea was revolutionary and controversial. The company called Simulmatics, a combination of the words simulation and automation, told clients it had crafted a people machine to predict human behavior. The idea attracted customers but drew condemnation from scholars and political leaders who saw it as a threat to democracy. Lepore has a new book about the company and its colorful founders, a mix of Madison Avenue admen and social scientists, and about its checkered history assisting politicians, corporations and the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of History at Harvard University, a staff writer at The New Yorker and host of the podcast The Last Archive. She's written many books, including "These Truths: A History Of The United States." She joins me from her home in Brattleboro, Vt., to talk about her latest book, "If Then: How The Simulmatics Corporation Invented The Future." Jill Lepore, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

JILL LEPORE: Hey. Thanks so much for having me.

DAVIES: This enterprise had a founder, a driving spirit - not exactly a technological visionary. Tell us about this guy Ed Greenfield.

LEPORE: (Laughter) Yeah. I love Ed Greenfield. He was a Madison Avenue ad guy in the 1950s. He had a company called Ed Greenfield and Co. At a time when Madison Avenue was growing, you know, that sort of "Mad Men" era that we're familiar with from television, he was a bit of a small-time operator. But he was a very devoted liberal and really spent a lot of time working for liberal causes and got into political consulting, which is what a lot of advertising agencies had done, mostly for Republicans. But Greenfield wanted to bring political consulting to Democrats.

DAVIES: And like a lot of entrepreneurs, there was a part a bit huckster to Greenfield. I mean, he had some educational credentials that didn't exactly (laughter) stand up to scrutiny, right?

LEPORE: (Laughter) Yeah. You know he seems to have been an incredibly loving and affable fellow in many ways, very charming. People admired him, but they also often tended to get really frustrated with him when they got to know him a little bit better. And one of the things they got frustrated with was the bravado and braggadocio that a lot of what he was promoting was himself. And so there was a lot of sleight of hand. So he often introduced himself as having gone to the University of Chicago and to Yale. And I asked his surviving children about that. And they all said, I don't really know that that's true.

And, you know, you do what you do. You fact check. So I wrote to the registrars at all these places. And no, he had not attended those places, those schools. He didn't have degrees from them. He had incidental affiliations with them. But, you know, he was a salesman. So he sold himself.

DAVIES: So Ed Greenfield came on the scene at a time when political advertising was a new thing. People just had televisions, and candidates were getting used to the idea of ad companies. And computers were new - these big hulking machines. What was the idea of this company that he put together that was so unique.

LEPORE: So he wanted to devise what he called sometimes a voting behavior machine, that you could take the - what we know about voters, which is information gathered by pollsters, and the information that is the giant data set that is election returns and marry that to behavioral science and then run it all through a computer. And you could predict how people would behave mathematically.

DAVIES: Right. And to do this, I mean, he was a guy who was really good at developing relationships. He knew everybody. He really tapped a lot of very sophisticated social scientists of his day, didn't he.

LEPORE: Yeah, because he understood that there was this great, new thing going on, which was simulation - computer simulation. People knew it from flight simulation. Wow, you could train pilots by having a computer simulate the experience of flight. And he knew how exciting and buzzy automation was - right? - like, the way big data was buzzy, you know, a few years ago. Automation - everything's being automated. So he decided to start this new company. He called it Simulmatics to kind of mash those two words together. He thought it would be like cybernetics, you know, to be, like, a buzzword of the era. So in 1959 when he founded it, it seemed to him that this would be the future of American politics and also of American marketing.

DAVIES: This Madison Avenue adman Ed Greenfield has this idea of using computers to help predict behavior. And he hooks up with a guy named Bill McPhee, who's kind of a math genius, a really interesting and colorful character. Just tell us a little bit about him and this idea that he came up with that would drive this company.

LEPORE: Yeah. So McPhee was at Columbia. People sometimes called him Wild Bill McPhee. He was a very erratic genius. And he worked in the field of voting behavior, trying to use what we know about election returns and public opinion polls to come up with a mathematical model that could tell you how to predict voters' behavior. And he came up with this thing for his Ph.D. dissertation. And then Greenfield, who met everybody - he collected (laughter) people - met McPhee and said, this is it. This is it. This is the thing I've been - you know, ever since the election of 1952, I've been trying to find a way that we could use computers to influence political campaigns. And so he brought McPhee on board and he turned his - really, his doctoral dissertation into a commercial product that would found a for-profit company.

I think what Greenfield didn't quite get was McPhee was a little wild-eyed. I mean, during the time he was doing that research, he was manic depressive. His wife was home with, you know, young children - had him committed to Bellevue. Most of this work he did, a great deal of it, he did while in Bellevue.

DAVIES: The psychiatric hospital.

LEPORE: The psychiatric hospital, yeah.

DAVIES: So he writes all this down on paper, and it proves to be a really powerful idea.

LEPORE: Yeah. And it is a really powerful idea. Like, I - it still is. I mean, you know, think about what political campaigns do today, right? They're collecting data about you in order to send you messages that will affect how you vote. That's now what our politics has become. I mean, especially we're stuck in our houses. That's really all that we have, right? We're not talking to people on the street or even answering the door, chatting with people about what we might do. We're just - we're bits of data being manipulated. But that idea, kookily enough, like, comes from sort of a madman in Bellevue trying to reinvent American politics.

DAVIES: Right. The idea was that, you know, we have this data on people, and you can slice all this data up. And then you can tell a candidate the impact if they decide to endorse a civil rights bill or oppose a trade agreement. You can actually try and predict, simulate what would happen. Ed Greenfield, the guy who runs the ad agency, sends this proposal 'cause he's excited by it to a guy named Newton Minow, who happens to be a close adviser to Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president the '50s. He then forwards it to Arthur Schlesinger, the Harvard historian. And what's interesting is that Newton Minow has a strong reaction to this idea. What does he think of it?

LEPORE: Yeah, this knocked me out when I found it in the archives in Stevenson's papers at Princeton. Minow writes to Schlesinger. They had both been involved in Stevenson's campaigns, close advisers to Stevenson. This is 1959. Stevenson's thinking about running again for a third time in 1960. And Minow says to Schlesinger, like, you remember Ed Greenfield? He worked on the campaign in '56 'cause Greenfield had worked for the Stevenson campaign. He's got this idea, this Project Macroscope thing. Look. I think it's got to be illegal. And if it's not illegal, it's surely immoral. And I also don't think it can't work. Like, what - tell me; what should we do about this? And Schlesinger writes back and says, yeah, you know, I remember Greenfield, and yeah, I share all of your reservations.

You know, and what Schlesinger - the great presidential historian - means by that is, like, a candidate for presidency should speak about civil rights forcefully because he or she should speak about civil rights forcefully, not because a computer says that, you know, you might win this district if you do that 'cause, you know - so Schlesinger is like - worry about it, the question - implications for leadership. But I don't like to stand in the way of science. And this might work (laughter). So Schlesinger's a power guy, you know? He wants to win. He wants the Democrats to win. The Republicans have held the White House for all of the '50s.

DAVIES: Right. So a debate begins to emerge. I mean, does using all of these predictive tools amount to manipulating voters and manipulating an election, or is it just good, smart politics?

LEPORE: Yeah. And I think other than Minow, who has a real moral clarity around this issue - I mean, I think he correctly foresees all the problems with it. There aren't a lot of people whose questions go beyond, will it work? There's a real desperation, you know, kind of partisan desperation. There's one other guy, though, who really does oppose the project. It's this guy named Eugene Burdick, who was a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. He'd worked for Greenfield on the Stevenson campaign in '56 and had been asked to join this new endeavor. You know, would he sign on, with all these elite behavioral scientists, to this new project? And he said no. He foresaw the problems that it could bring - right? - the way in which he says, you know, it could destroy American politics as we know it.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Jill Lepore. Her new book is "If Then: How The Simulmatics Corporation Invented The Future." We'll talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "SPY MEETING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore about her new book which tells the story of a company formed in the late '50s that pioneered the idea of accumulating data about people and using computers to predict their behavior in voting, shopping and lifestyle choices. The book is called "If Then: How The Simulmatics Corporation Invented The Future."

So in 1960, John F. Kennedy is running for president against Richard Nixon. And Ed Greenfield, who started this company Simulmatics, convinces the Kennedy campaign to hire the company to do some research, give them some advice. They put polling data into their computers. Did they give John Kennedy any valuable advice on that election?

LEPORE: They did. I mean, at first they were working for the DNC, before Kennedy was the nominee. And what they were trying to do was convince the DNC that the Democrats needed to take a stronger position on civil rights. Greenfield was a very, very strong advocate of civil rights and so were all the scientists who worked for what became the Simulmatics corporation. So they did that first bit of work, and then when Kennedy becomes the nominee, they do additional work for Kennedy. They prepare three more reports. And it turns out that in the fall of 1960, everything that Simulmatics recommended Kennedy do Kennedy did. And so when he won, Simulmatics took credit.

DAVIES: Right. And so among those were formally embracing civil rights in a way that he really hadn't before, openly acknowledging that there were questions about his Catholic faith and addressing that directly. And whether it carried the day or not, that's what he did, and he won (laughter).

LEPORE: Yeah. And a really interesting measure of the difference between this era and our era is that (laughter) the Kennedy campaign did not expect Simulmatics to take credit or even to take any public role whatsoever. The idea that if you were going to hire such a company, you should probably not admit to it (laughter) seems to have been the one that animated - especially Bobby Kennedy, who was furious when Simulmatics started saying, oh, well, you know, we're responsible for Kennedy's victory.

DAVIES: Right. Well, one of my favorite parts of this story is what happens after the 1960 election, which is that in January, a story appears in Harper's Magazine about Simulmatics and its role in the Kennedy campaign. Tell us about this.

LEPORE: Yeah. It's an article called "The People Machine," (laughter) which is super spooky-sounding, and it's by this guy Thomas B. Morgan, who's a freelance writer. He's - you know, he's written for Harper's and Esquire, a lot of other places. Morgan does not reveal that he's Ed Greenfield's best friend (laughter) and that he also was the editor of all those reports. And he goes on to become the director of PR for Simulmatics.

DAVIES: The editor of reports that they did for the Kennedy campaign.

LEPORE: The - (laughter) yeah.

DAVIES: He was right in the middle of this, but none of this is disclosed in the story, right?

(LAUGHTER)

LEPORE: No, he doesn't disclose any of it. But it is actually a really interesting article, and it's not entirely all boosterism. I mean, Morgan very carefully raises all the ethical questions around - well, OK, so this happened, and we're not 100% sure that it swayed the election, but we should be asking some questions about whether this is - if it does sway elections, is this OK? Is this the right thing to do? But what the Kennedy campaign sees is just this big headline that says, Kennedy used a robot (laughter) and deferred to a robot, like, that his campaign was run by a robot. And Kennedy had run with a lot of opposition to automation, which is a big electoral issue in 1960.

So it put him in a real pickle. And it was the - kind of a great story. So it wasn't so much the Harper's story, but - this is, you know, right before the inauguration. All over the country, newspapers - even little newspapers - picked it up and wrote about it and (laughter) - we've elected a robot president. I mean, just, like - just kind of, like, think of kind of 1960s automation dystopia stuff, just kind of all leaks out of this story. And, suddenly, the nation was like, oh, whoa, this is - this could be really bad. And so the Kennedy campaign has to try to, you know, backtrack. And Pierre Salinger - the, you know, spokesperson - says, oh, no, we've never even heard of Simulmatics, which is just, you know, not true (laughter).

DAVIES: Just - that was a lie, wasn't it (laughter)?

LEPORE: There's a lot of, you know, kind of spin around whether Kennedy had, in fact, been elected by a computer.

DAVIES: Right. So - but this idea that he had a secret weapon, which was a robot - I mean, it also provoked serious debate among people who were concerned about the future democracy, right?

LEPORE: Yeah. It does. And I think - the argument that wins out eventually, honestly, is the argument that's put forward by Ithiel de Sola Pool, who's the MIT political scientist who's the chairman of the research board for this new company, Simulmatics. He says, you know, you want a political candidate to have as much information as possible. This is information that our technology and scientific research is now able to provide to political campaigns. So who wants to stand in the way of knowledge? We - like, knowledge is a good thing. And progress will be when the other side also has a people machine. If we have two people machines fighting against one another, then that's fair (laughter). And (laughter) that's actually the argument that wins.

DAVIES: You mentioned that computers of the day were worked by women. Tell us about the women who worked with these computers and - I don't know - how they saw their roles, how they fit into an organization.

LEPORE: So the big purchasers of these mainframe computers in the 1950s were giant corporations that used them for payroll first and for inventory control. And then airlines used them for ticketing and air traffic control purposes. So there just didn't - you know, not a lot of people have - sort of no one has a personal computer. But it's - you really have to be a pretty big company to have them. And the pool of workers who are brought in to work with them is essentially the typing pool.

Most computers at this time were run by women. Most of the coding was done by women. You know, women were called computers before the machines came to be called computers. It's women who've been working as typists in these corporations. And then they're brought in to learn how to work with these new machines, which, you know, look like that's what they need. But the intellectual ambition of a lot of these women is to learn how to code and to learn how to code as an intellectual project.

They get pushed out of that work. And then, over the course of the 1960s, when the kind of buzzy word is computer man - like, who's a computer man (laughter)? And so the field becomes really masculinized once its status rises and once there are enough computers. That's kind of a forgotten chapter in the history of computing. But for a long time, the coders, the computers were women.

DAVIES: All right. So on the strength of all of the attention that it got in the 1960 election, Simulmatics is a hot commodity. And Ed Greenfield sees a world of new clients he can pitch. Who do they pitch to? And what do they tell them they can do?

LEPORE: Yeah. So they - he's put together quite a distinguished group of people. The people that work for this company are - it's an incredible array of some of the leading behavioral scientists and early computer scientists as well. They write a stock offering. They go public. You know, it's kind of a splashy initial offering. The clientele that they reach out to - some of which they succeed in bringing in - first, advertising agencies and, you know, big retailers - Colgate-Palmolive, Ralston Purina - those kinds of people.

They do kind of brand-switching ad campaigns for them. They have to say, you know, we have this imaginary population of consumers. We have some consumer data that, you know, we've gotten from you, or we got from ad agencies. And we can predict, you know, who's going to switch to your dog food if you say your dog food tastes good, versus who's going to switch to your dog food if you say your dog food makes your dog more energetic. And they do, you know, just very just kind of standard fare today. But it's pioneering at the time. Everything that, you know, is done now they're proposing then.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, they claimed they had this people machine, which is, really, kind of a concept. But if I have this right, what they were telling potential clients was that they have crafted 3,000 perfectly representative, though, imaginary people that have all of these characteristics that are sliced in categories that you could test anything on - you know, dog food, breakfast cereal, political messaging - whatever. How close did they come to actually having the goods they were promising?

LEPORE: You know, that I find difficult to tell. I found in the archives 10,000 or so punch cards from the election research and, you know, with a bunch of people, including people at the computer history museum, (laughter) tried to rerun the people machine, like, tried to turn it - switch it back on and see - try to have some measure of assessment of it. We couldn't get the FORTRAN program (laughter) cards to work. So this is a plea for anyone who wants to take on this project.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

LEPORE: It's difficult to assess. You know, we still don't know, for instance, the effect that Cambridge Analytica had on the 2016 Trump campaign or the 2015 Brexit campaign, right? Like, Cambridge Analytica would like us to think that it had a huge effect. But how measurable is it even now with the tools that we have to measure it? So it's quite difficult to say.

DAVIES: Yeah. It did strike me, though, I mean, that even though they were probably promising more than they had, they were really successful in getting all these Fortune 500 companies. And it just reminds me that, then as now, success in consulting has a lot more to do with personal relationships and salesmanship than actually delivering meaningful (laughter) services.

LEPORE: Yeah. I mean, there's a trade industry newsletter I think in 1962 puts out a story called The Great Computer Hoax in which this guy's like look; the emperor has no clothes. Like, Simulmatics and these other companies that are following, you know, these kind of copycat companies, they got nothing (laughter). Like, you can eyeball this, guys? Like, this is a lot of money for nothing.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Jill Lepore. Her book is "If Then: How The Simulmatics Corporation Invented The Future." She'll be back to talk more about the company after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK ZAPPA'S "UNCLE MEAT: MAIN TITLE THEME")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore. Her new book is about an American company formed at the end of the 1950s with the then-revolutionary plan of accumulating data about people and using computers to predict their behavior in voting, shopping and living. The company's clients included the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign, major corporations and the American military in Vietnam. Lepore's book is "If Then: How The Simulmatics Corporation Invented The Future."

So, like, in 1961, this company was really riding a wave. I mean, they had this new idea, and they were getting clients right and left. And you tell the story of that summer. These men - and they really were mostly men - these social scientists and ad men gathering at Ed Greenfield's place, I guess, on Long Island on the beach. Give us a picture of what that was like, them and their families.

LEPORE: Yeah. So they decide to do a kind of whole-family retreat. So it's a lot of guys with young families, so they bring along their wives and their children to spend the summer in this very futuristic-looking place. Ed Greenfield has an old Victorian house, but right next door is a geodesic dome, you know, this one designed by - an early version of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome. So it looks kind of like a spaceship that's just landed there, and they use that as a workplace for coming up with new plans for what the company could do. You know, kind of - like, Greenfield keeps sending people memos like, what's your biggest idea of the day? Trying to stir people up - like, what could we - there's - sky's the limit. You know, and they're in this dome, looking out at the sky.

And meanwhile, their wives are, you know, doing what you do on the beach, which is chase after children and, you know, make sure they don't get sunburned and roast corn on the cob in a bonfire at night and make tuna salad sandwiches for everybody and make sure the toddler doesn't go in over her head. And the wives - especially Bill McPhee's wife, this extraordinary woman named Minnow McPhee - write a lot about those - it's not just that summer. There are other summers that they meet again and again and again. And what you see - Minnow McPhee is a preschool teacher - so someone who's really interested in the study of human behavior. She specialized - she studied in, you know, early learning of children.

And you see - what really struck me was so much anguish around the disconnect between these men. They're all white men. They're white, liberal men trying to understand the mind of other people, the minds in particular of Black voters, right? So it's white men trying to understand Black people and then the consumers, who are mainly women. And so they're trying to figure out how women think. And meanwhile, like, you know, as - Minnow's just like, they all treat their wives like crap. Like, they're just - it's this horrible - kind of a very bad bargain of 1950s marriages. I mean, some of these people had decent marriages, but the rest of them - almost all of them ended up in divorce and quite acrimonious divorces.

There's something, you know, that I think really prefigures the arrogance of Silicon Valley - right? - where these guys - you know, sort of the Zuckerberg kind of guy, like, stands above us all and tries to figure out, you know, how women and people of color think and how they can be influenced - like, the irony of Simulmatics trying to figure out what message the Kennedy campaign should send about civil rights in 1960 when, you know, Black men are sitting in at lunch counters all across the South. Black men and women are demonstrating on the streets. Like, do we need to build a - write a computer program to predict what the effect would be of taking a stronger position on civil rights for Black voters? I mean, it's just - it's kind of nuts, but it's also very much the world that we now live in.

DAVIES: You know, by 1964, they were - the company was struggling. And so they find a great new client, the Defense Department of the United States, then getting more and more involved in Vietnam. What did the government think that Simulmatics could do for them in Vietnam?

LEPORE: Well, Ithiel de Sola Pool, who was in charge of the Saigon office that Simulmatics opens, had long been involved in the Department of Defense. He was a very determined Cold Warrior, and he shared a lot of the worldview of Robert McNamara, who, you know - who had come, of course, from Ford Motor Company as a systems analyst and who really believed in, you know, running the numbers and running the war by computer.

DAVIES: He was the defense secretary for Kennedy and then Johnson, right?

LEPORE: Yes. And one of the things that Simulmatics was brought in to do early on was evaluate a computer system that was trying to determine the success of - and the continued loyalty of Vietnamese people living in this confined, rural area. It's this program that was known as the Strategic Hamlet Program. The Department of Defense had computers in Saigon that were running the numbers every day - like, kind of everything you could possibly think of, every possible indicator of what was going on in these hamlets.

DAVIES: I think we should just explain what these were was...

LEPORE: Yeah.

DAVIES: People were moved out of villages that were presumed to be sympathetic to the Viet Cong and then moved into these secure - you know, behind-barbed-wire compounds called strategic hamlets. And so it was a pretty radical way of trying to withdraw the popular base of the Viet Cong, and it put people in these areas.

LEPORE: Yeah. So even being involved in that program, which was, you know, subject to a great deal of criticism in the United States - especially after '67, say - was a complicated thing. And most of the Simulmatics scientists refused to be involved. They left the company. They refused to go to Saigon. You know, it was a very left, you know, liberal organization. But Pool was very in favor of that program. And so Simulmatics was brought in to evaluate the success of the Strategic Hamlet Program, the databank that is this hamlet dataset that was daily running the numbers to see, you know, was the loyalty of these people - was it assured? Was it rising? Was it falling - so to do some kind of analysis.

They also did a lot of measurement of popular opinion among Vietnamese peasants. And so they would drive out in a - you know, with a military escort or be flown into a village with teams of Vietnamese translators - most of these were college students - and ask questions. They would gather enough public opinion information, enough demographic information. And then you have a - you devise a model, and then you make a prediction.

DAVIES: Right. And it was really striking that, in doing these public opinion surveys of Vietnamese peasants, that they would come out in military convoys and then kind of expect people to give them honest answers to long lists of questions. What kind of information were they getting from these interviews?

LEPORE: Yeah. So I - you know, I spoke to some people who did the interviews, some of the social scientists. But I also spoke to some of the Vietnamese interpreters who, you know, really did the interviews. And they - you know, they - the Vietnamese interpreters said, you know, it was ridiculous. Like, you - everybody thinks you're a spy. Like, everyone's pressure these people are just the CIA posing as academics. And who's to dispute them?

And then I'm not going to - you know, basically, I'm not going to try to convince them to tell me the truth 'cause I know that they're vulnerable. You know, the person I'm interviewing is sitting next to somebody, you know, who might rat them out and kill their children in response to what they - how they answer the questions. Like, there's just no - nothing about this set of circumstances that would induce an honest answer. Also, the questions are largely, like, bafflingly irrelevant to these people's lives and the kind of daily suffering that they're enduring during this war. The whole thing is just kind of a travesty.

And what surprised me a bit was how clearly the Defense Department understood that it was a travesty and yet continued to fund it. There's just file after file after file in the National Archives of people at the Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the Department of Defense that oversaw the Simulmatics project, saying, this stuff is nuts. These people are doing meaningless research. And we're paying them again and again and again for it.

DAVIES: In the millions. Yeah, yeah.

LEPORE: Yeah. They keep saying, let's cut it off. Let's cut this off. Let's cut this off. It's going nowhere. But it's the kind of thing McNamara really liked.

DAVIES: How did Simulmatics' work in Vietnam end? Did they leave, or were they fired?

LEPORE: They were fired. Each of the reports that they submitted was questioned, and each led to requests that the contracts be terminated. But finally, they were fired in 1968.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you here. We're going to take another break. We're speaking with Jill Lepore. Her book is "If Then: How The Simulmatics Corporation Invented The Future." We'll talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore poor about her new book, which tells the story of a company formed in the late '50s that pioneered the idea of accumulating data about people and using computers to predict their behavior. The book is called "If Then: How The Simulmatics Corporation Invented The Future."

It's interesting that the time when Simulmatics was involved in Vietnam was a time when its work, I gather, was kind of collapsing in the United States. And Ed Greenfield was trying to figure out ways to revive the company. You describe one point at which he actually visited the operation in Saigon. What did you learn about that?

LEPORE: Yeah. So he flies out. And the staff are really dubious about him. He at that point has been drinking - begun to drink much more heavily. He's kind of lost control of himself. His marriage is falling apart. A lot of what destroys the company is the instability of their domestic arrangements, kind of, you know, their inability to understand the people that they love. So Greenfield flies out to Saigon and just gets drunk and alienates everyone. And people begin pulling away from the project who had kind of held on, thinking that maybe there could be a way forward. And at that point, Greenfield and Pool also part ways, and Greenfield is forced out of the presidency of the company.

DAVIES: Yeah. You said a lot of what destroyed the company was these men's inability to to handle their personal lives and people they love. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

LEPORE: Yeah. I mean, I think it's a weirdness of business history that we kind of have a kind of corporate center - corporation-center notion of what is happening in a company in any given time. It's really clear that this company, which is founded on a commitment to the idea that people who aren't white men are mysterious and need to be decoded by computers, kind of can't really endure the absurdity of that idea. It kind of collapses in on itself. You know, the 1960s are a great era of emancipation for just the kind of white women who are married to this kind of guy, you know, the women that gave up their education to raise children. They get caught up in the women's liberation movement. They come to be extraordinarily distressed by what their husbands are doing.

It's also the case that for most of these men, especially those who are involved in Vietnam, their sons are opposed to the war. And the family fractures in that way, as well. Greenfield's son Michael strenuously opposed to the Vietnam War, could not forgive his father for making money off of the war. So their families are really falling apart.

DAVIES: So after the '60s did anybody even know the name Simulmatics? Did it just disappear?

LEPORE: Yeah, I think it completely vanished. I mean, I had certainly not heard of it. There's not really scholarship about it. One of the reasons that it vanished is Ed Greenfield's own dissolution. I mean, most of the records of the company were in New York, where the headquarters were. And the company filed for bankruptcy. Ed, you know, sort of lost to the oblivion of alcoholism. Pretty much think all the archives were destroyed. You mean, this kind of thing - like, someone at some point rented the office and just chucked everything out. So it didn't really leave behind a paper trail that some - like, they all gave their corporation's records to the Harvard Business School or something. There are no corporation records.

By 1970, people are writing to you Ithiel de Sola Pool at MIT, asking for - you know, do you have your punch cards? Do you have notes from this study? I'm interested in your Kerner work. And he said, you know, most of it's in New York. And those queries go nowhere. So I - a lot of what I had to do to work on this project was piece together the archive from different institutional collections. But because so many of the scientists were - you know, they were academics, they left their papers to their universities. So there is quite a lot out there.

DAVIES: And you managed to meet a lot of the kids of the parents who were involved in it. How did you come upon this story?

LEPORE: In 2015, I had an assignment from The New Yorker to write kind of an assessment of the state of the public opinion, the polling industry. And I wrote a piece called "Politics And The New Machine." And it struck me at the time really early in my research that polling is - certainly should be, I guess, obsolete in that with the advent of data analytics companies, data - modern data - modern political data science, you don't have to call somebody up and ask them, you know, a hundred questions to know how they might vote or what they believe about, you know, Biden's latest speech or Trump's latest action 'cause you can find out. You can collect data about them. That's how politics actually works.

So I was interested. And then in - for the purpose of the piece in answering, like, when did that begin? If polling is being replaced by data science, when did that begin? And that took me to Simulmatics and the 1960 election work.

DAVIES: You know, the stuff that they did that was so controversial - I mean, the idea that you could assemble data and predict how people would react to a political idea or a new product, which was controversial then - is just so completely normal now. And people are collecting, you know, untold amounts of data from us in so many ways, you know, Google and Facebook and hundreds of others. What's the place of Simulmatics in the story of data and its use in the country?

LEPORE: You know, I was just reading this quite chilling piece by Sue Halpern in The New Yorker this week about an app that the Trump campaign has been using and how effective it is at drawing your contact information and then also geolocating information in order to send you particular messages - and not only to you, but also to everybody in your contacts list and have gathered information about each of them by cellphone number, which is kind of the gold standard in doing voter research - right? - because you can then - if you know your cellphone number, you know kind of everything.

And I was really struck reading that. We have nothing that stops this app from going into your contact lists and gathering all this information not only about you, but about everybody else that you know and then submitting messages to them in your name. How we got to this place is because no one said no to Simulmatics.

DAVIES: You know, a lot of this is about how you can manipulate voters. What are you thinking about as you look to the coming election?

LEPORE: When I think about what Simulmatics started doing - was really trying to convince the Democratic Party to count Black voters, right? Black voters matter, really, was Ed Greenfield's message. We're going to show you that, mathematically. We're going to build a computer. We're going to build a people machine that can show you that Black voters matter 'cause we need to be stronger on civil rights.

Like, it starts with this really noble commitment to civil rights. But what it produces is the world that we have today, where we're all so segmented and micromessaged to that we have no sense of a common good any longer, which is how, you know, a democracy has to work. Like, we actually are not supposed to be going into a voting booth and voting - or sealing a ballot and sticking it in an envelope and voting the way our demographic microsegment says we must because we're actually supposed to be looking at that ballot and thinking about what's good for everyone, that notion of the public good and a public interest, which is the - just the ground on which democracy stands is falling away from beneath our feet.

DAVIES: Right. And I guess if those of us who cover elections spend all of our time talking about just the hard politics of it, you know, how demographics will work, we're - that's time we could be spending talking about what's good for the country.

LEPORE: Yeah, instead of just reporting the latest national poll, which doesn't really tell us anything since we live an Electoral College system anyway (laughter). I think there are deeper moral and ethical questions that, you know, good reporters are always wrestling with but I would like to hear voters on more, and I would like to hear that a lot more. I mean, I recognize the sexiness and the fun of, you know, FiveThirtyEight and the kind of gamesmanship, and everything is baseball now, or baseball is now computing (laughter). But, you know, I don't like to watch the game where they change the pitcher every three batters because they've got the numbers to do that. Like, baseball is baseball, and democracy is democracy.

DAVIES: Well, Jill Lepore, thank you so much for speaking with us again.

LEPORE: Thanks so much, Dave. It was a real pleasure.

DAVIES: Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her book is "If Then: How The Simulmatics Corporation Invented The Future." This is FRESH AIR.

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