Jill Lepore is professor of American history at Harvard and a prolific essayist for the New Yorker. Her books have included These Truths, a 900-page chronicle of American democracy and The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Her new book, If Then, tells the story of the Simulmatics Corporation – “the Cambridge Analytica of the 1960s” – which used emerging computer technology to try to predict human behaviour and win elections. This interview took place the day before the first US presidential debate.
Reading about the extraordinary history of the Simulmatics Corporation and its “People Machine”, it was instructive to see how the anxieties we have today about the more sinister aspects of computer technology were very present 60 years ago. Did that surprise you?
If anything, I think in the 50s and 60s – because so few people had direct experience of computers – there was even more concern than there is now. Computers were associated with vast power. It was only with the arrival in the 1980s and 1990s of the personal computer we were sold the idea that the technology was participatory and liberal. I think we have returned, in a way, to the original fears, now we sense that these personal devices very much represent the power of vast corporations.
The Simulmatics story is also an early example of using big data as a con trick, making claims it could not back up. You obviously saw a parable in that as well?
The product they were selling was the accurate prediction of human behaviour. There was inevitably a lot of hucksterism attached to it and that hasn’t changed.
Do you think we should in general pay more attention to those origin stories of computer technology, that all the issues we are facing today were wired in from the start?
One of the myths of Silicon Valley is that everything is always brand new. The fact is that most of those new ideas are not only deeply derivative, but specifically derivative of the national security objectives of the United States during the cold war. Our culture of technological utopianism wants to forget that.