NPR reporter Shannon Bond reports of a little-known — and now nearly entirely forgotten — company called Simulmatics, which had technology that used vast amounts of data to profile voters and ultimately help John F. Kennedy win the 1960 election. From the report:
The […] company was called Simulmatics, the subject of Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore’s timely new book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. Before Cambridge Analytica, before Facebook, before the Internet, there was Simulmatics’ “People Machine,” in Lepore’s telling: “A computer program designed to predict and manipulate human behavior, all sorts of human behavior, from buying a dishwasher to countering an insurgency to casting a vote.”
Lepore unearths Simulmatics’ story and makes the argument that, amid a broader proliferation of behavioral science research across academia and government in the 1960s, the company paved the way for our 21st-century obsession with data and prediction. Simulmatics, she argues, is “a missing link in the history of technology,” the antecedent to Facebook, Google and Amazon and to algorithms that attempt to forecast who will commit crimes or get good grades. “It lurks behind the screen of every device,” she writes.
If Then presents Simulmatics as both ahead of its time and, more often than not, overpromising and under-delivering. The company was the brainchild of Ed Greenfield, an advertising executive straight out of Mad Men, who believed computers could help Democrats recapture the White House. He wanted to create a model of the voting population that could tell you how voters would respond to whatever a candidate did or said. The name Simulmatics was a contraction of “simulation” and “automation.” As Greenfield explained it to investors, Lepore writes: “The Company proposes to engage principally in estimating probable human behavior by the use of computer technology.” The People Machine was originally built to analyze huge amounts of data ahead of the 1960 election, in what Lepore describes as, at the time, “the largest political science research project in American history.”