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'If Then' Examines Early Fears That Computers Would Manipulate Voters


Jill Lepore is a historian. Her acclaimed books include "These Truths: A History Of The United States." And something really bugs her about people in Silicon Valley.

JILL LEPORE: It is a commitment of a certain kind of technologist to ignore the past.

GREENE: More than that, Lepore says, they try to predict the future and then shape it. This made her determined to write some overlooked history of computer predictions. She talked about her new book with our co-host Steve Inskeep.


The predictions that bother Jill Lepore are part of our daily lives. Start to write a text message, and predictive software suggests how you might finish a word. Read an article online, and a computer shows you a particular ad, having predicted you might respond to it. Listen to political candidates, and they may be saying words that computers predicted would affect you. Lepore's book examines a pioneer of these predictions. A company called Simulmatics began this work in the 1950s and '60s. They started in politics despite widespread concern that computers would manipulate voters.

LEPORE: People set all of that aside and went on with the kind of heedless, disruptive innovation that characterizes our own day.

INSKEEP: Lepore's book is called "If Then." The title references a typical sentence construction in computer code. If this happens, then that event follows. Simulmatics founders worked for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960, when their work was controversial enough that Kennedy denied it.

LEPORE: Simulmatics claimed credit for Kennedy's victory, and they did provide his campaign with an awful lot of advice. They did - wrote reports for him on a number of issues. They wrote reports first for the Democratic National Committee, and then they were hired by the Kennedy campaign by Bobby Kennedy. And everything that Simulmatics suggested Kennedy do in his campaign Kennedy then went on and did. And so even before (laughter) he won - he won very narrowly. But even before he won, Simulmatics had started taking credit for his victory. And then they were doing this kind of big publicity blitz taking credit for Kennedy's victory.

And then (laughter) Kennedy was like, wait a minute. We were going to use you. We didn't think you were going to use us. Like, we didn't actually want the world knowing that we used a computer analysis company to, you know - there's no way to establish, like, would Kennedy have done those things anyway? You know, like speak forthrightly about his Catholicism, say. Take a stronger stand on civil rights. But everything they did - suggest that Kennedy do Kennedy did.

INSKEEP: You have a number of passages where you connect Simulmatics' story to the present. And I'd like you to read one of them. It's early on, Page 5, the first full paragraph. Would you read that for us?


(Reading) Simulmatics' legacy endures in predictive analytics, what-if simulation and behavioral data science. It lurks behind the screen of every device. Simulmatics, notwithstanding its own failure, helped invent the data mad, a near-totalitarian 21st century, in which the only knowledge that counts is prediction, and corporations extract wealth by way of the collection of data and the manipulation of attention and the profit of prophecy.

INSKEEP: Wow, so much to ask about that. First, it's a near-totalitarian 21st century. Why?

LEPORE: (Laughter) Oh, you know, there's a time when you have a certain, you know - an afternoon, a summer's afternoon when you pull out your phone to check the news and read your email and poke around the Internet. And you - it lands upon you like the weight of a pallet of bricks that everything you're doing is a form of manipulation. Your attention is being interrupted. Your next step is being predicted. And it felt to me many times when I've had that summer's afternoon feeling of being crushed beneath the weight of my iPhone (laughter) that this is psychological warfare, that we are paying to have a war, a psychological war waged against us every moment that we open up these apps.

These methods - all of these methods interrupting you, distracting you, commodifying your attention - all these things come from psychological warfare. And then they're newly strengthened and accelerated with the advances of computer technology and the prediction of human behavior. And I don't really see where I agreed to that. I mean, I live in a democracy. I believe in the consent of the governed. You know, I - we live in a free market economy. Fine. People can sell you stuff. But I don't know when I agreed to sign up, terms of service notwithstanding (laughter), to have my...

INSKEEP: You probably did click accept on this at some point, but go on.

LEPORE: I probably did. I did. OK, in a formal sense, you know, I agreed. But I - no, I just want to say I don't agree. I don't - you know, at what point do we say stop to that?

INSKEEP: There's another phrase in that passage that you read about the manipulation of attention that I want to draw attention to because the first part of your story is predicting the future, predicting how people would behave, but then it's predicting how people might behave if they're spoken to a certain way. It's actually changing the future. That's what people are doing, right?

LEPORE: Yeah. And I do think that that is what you need to do now if you're founding a new company in Silicon Valley. I - someone just sent me a announcement yesterday of a new startup that promises to sell to its clients predictions about the fate of every piece of federal and state legislation that might affect your business, which - first of all, that's malarkey. (Laughter) You can't actually predict what's going to happen to federal and state legislation.

But to me, in some ways, it's almost worse than, you know, endless lobbying somehow. Like, this - to make money off the - like, what - where is the commitment to we live in a society of political equals who are equally enfranchised, and we elect representatives to make decisions based on the common interest and in the public? Like, what part of that makes any sense? So I just think that there is a kind of entirely out of control desperation that is only getting worse day by day. In a very uncertain time, we're kind of trapped in these predictive tools.

INSKEEP: Jill Lepore is the author of "If Then: How The Simulmatics Corporation Invented The Future." Thanks very much.

LEPORE: Hey, thanks so much, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "ILLUSORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.