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‘If Then’ review: The not-so-subtle art of creating data Frankensteins

In the beginning was the data. And with it came manipulation. Satan who disrupted paradise was armed with data. He knew a lot about the people he wanted to gaslight. He knew a lot more than they did about God, about Paradise and such.

Powered by data, Satan was able to fill the minds of Adam and Eve, naive for their period and upbringing, with thingamajigs that could get them to do what he wanted and get out of Paradise eventually.

Original Sin is perhaps the oldest example of the result of data manipulation. Satan was the Cambridge Analytica of The Book of Genesis.

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Simulmatics Corporation, whose story Jill Lepore chronicles in If Then, was the Cambridge Analytica of Cold War America. Not many know of this enterprise today. But the impact of what it started back in the late-1950s continues to haunt the globe, in more virulent and pervasive forms. This is the company that pioneered the art of data manipulation in America, creating a toxic model that anyone could easily emulate in future.

Simulmatics used data and technology to create tools that could influence people to change their mind on myriad matters. From voting behaviour to buying choices to support causes, the company played with almost everything and found immense success, so much so that the People Machine, a program Simulmatics created for predicting and tweaking human behaviour, is credited with installing John F. Kennedy as the President of the United States in 1960. Mind you, Nigel Oakes, the founder of Cambridge Analytica, was just two years old then. It would take another Alexander Nix, its infamous CEO, to be born.

‘Mad Men’ corporation

Simulmatics was founded by Ed Greenfield, who worked in the popular advertising industry in Madison Avenue known for its ‘Mad Men’. To know that Simulmatics was able to blend data analytics with political, marketing and advertising campaigns and create incredible results in the 1950s and ’60s is a shocker for us who tend to think such manipulations are an offshoot of the current crop of information technologies. Turns out, data was always a deadly weapon. Those who knew how to use it had their way.

Lepore’s story of Simulmatics has many pointers to the future of data and the first of which is the fact that these experiments by default hold the potential to become Frankensteins in their own right if there are no policies or regulations to guide them.

The next important takeaway could be that data analytics-driven commercial interests or authoritarian or utopian dreams can create opportunities that look so alluring financially and present people with immense and unwanted God-like power that they, by rule, will misuse.

Spectrum of views

Lepore’s research is mindblowing. Her eye for detail is enchantingly meticulous. She profiles the evolution of Simulmatics with a phenomenological understanding of the data economy and offers a multipronged spectrum of views on how data was/is used to buy people without their consent.

Her prose is spirited but neutral.

Regular readers of Lepore (she writes regularly for the The New Yorker) can easily spot the philosophical richness in the narrative nonfiction she produces and it is clearly visible in If Then as well.

This is a book everyone with interest in the world of data (manipulation) will read like a gospel. This is easily in the company of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism or Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil and, inarguably, one of the most relevant and readable works of 2020. This is a stark reminder of a Paradise lost.

If Then; Jill Lepore, Hachette, ₹899.

The writer is Editor, number13.in

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