Upcoming: IF THEN by Jill Lepore (Liveright)

LeporeJ-IfThenA new Jill Lepore book is always something to celebrate! And this latest looks quite different from the author’s previous histories. In the past, Lepore has covered topics such as the storytelling tradition in America (The Story of America), The Secret History of Wonder Woman, and has also tackled the Herculean task of writing a single-volume history of the United States (These Truths). If Then is a history of a data company established during the Cold War and how its influence can still be felt today. Here’s the synopsis:

A brilliant, revelatory account of the Cold War origins of the data-mad, algorithmic twenty-first century, from the author of the acclaimed international bestseller These Truths.

The Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959, mined data, targeted voters, accelerated news, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge — decades before Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Cambridge Analytica. Silicon Valley likes to imagine that it has no past, but the scientists of Simulmatics are the long-dead grandfathers of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Borrowing from psychological warfare, they used computers to predict and direct human behavior, deploying their “People Machine” from New York, Cambridge, and Saigon for clients that included John Kennedy’s presidential campaign, the New York Times, Young & Rubicam, and, during the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense.

Jill Lepore, distinguished Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, unearthed from archives the almost unbelievable story of this long-vanished corporation, and of the women hidden behind it. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lepore argues, Simulmatics invented the future by building the machine in which the world now finds itself trapped and tormented, algorithm by algorithm.

I’m really looking forward to reading this. I would also highly recommend The Story of America and The Secret History of Wonder Woman. If you are looking for a single-volume history of the United States, then These Truths is certainly one to consider (I’ve typically found that genre rather unwieldy, but Lepore’s book is excellent).

If Then is due to be published by Liveright in North America and in the UK, on September 15th, 2020.

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Guest Post: “Facebook and the First World War — The inspiration behind IF THEN” by Matthew De Abaitua

DeAbaituaM-AuthorPicIt was a news report on CNBC that provided a glimpse of the world to come:

“A single mysterious computer program that placed orders — and then subsequently canceled them — made up 4 percent of all quote traffic in the U.S. stock market last week, according to the top tracker of high-frequency trading activity. The motive of the algorithm is still unclear.”

This last phrase was taken by the artist James Bridle as the title of a talk. I hope to find it on a t-shirt one day.

The opacity of the algorithm indicates the underlying otherness of the technology that surrounds and penetrates us. On the surface, the algorithms powering Google and Facebook are compliant. Place a search term into Google and watch it scamper to please you. But there are layers of intent behind that compliance, some of which are commercial but a few offer stranger sites for speculation. Continue reading