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The People Machine

By Dag Spicer | December 01, 2020

We the People

The history of American democracy traces an ever expanding definition of “We the People,” those first three words of the United States Constitution, words standing tall and proud, apart from all other words, emphasizing that legitimacy in leadership comes only from the citizens of a land. The United States was to be a country ruled by laws, not kings. Writing from Paris, English-born philosopher and revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote rather cheekily in 1775, “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”

When first founded in 1776, only white men of property, about 8% of the population, were allowed to vote in the United States. The story of America is how more of “the People” finally achieved the right to vote and shape their own democracy. It is also the story of how systematic efforts to deny these same people their right to vote were a constant feature of American politics; indeed, such impediments continue to this day.

Predicting Elections

With the development of electronic computers in the 1950s, ideas about using such "giant brains" to predict the outcome of a national election – counting “The People” electronically – began percolating in the minds of CBS television executives. Predicting the outcome of an election using computers began in the 1952 Eisenhower vs. Stevenson presidential election. The Remington-Rand Univac-1 computer was the star of the moment, correctly predicting an Eisenhower victory, even if the announcers of the day didn’t fully believe it and only grudgingly accepted Univac’s judgement at the 11th hour.

The Univac performance, which was the first time most Americans had ever seen a computer, did not go unnoticed by a small group of men on the East Coast, mostly social scientists and mathematicians by training, who came up with the idea of using computers not only to predict elections, but to predict an array of social behaviors, from buying Corn Flakes to predicting urban unrest; to essentially apply Madison Avenue techniques of market and behavioral research to solving social and political problems. The company was named Simulmatics and its founder was Ed Greenfield.

In an hour long conversation with Harvard professor of history Jill Lepore, we began by asking what the Democratic and Republican parties thought of using computer techniques for election forecasting in this important election between Eisenhower and Stevenson, the first to use a computer on live television.

Jill Lepore explains why Democrats were opposed to political advertising in the 1950s.

Simulmatics Builds a "People Machine"

What’s clear is that the Republican party, the party of Big Business, was already very comfortable with using mass marketing and advertising techniques to promote their newest "product," the presidential candidate; while the Democrats, the party of Big Labor, bristled at the perceived implications of the technology putting people out of work and the feeling of being manipulated again but with new tools. There were temperamental reasons as well: Eisenhower, while not overly enthusiastic, was positively showy compared to his rival, Adlai Stevenson, who played the aloof intellectual, refusing to contemplate using such a vulgar method as a computer.

The first major use of Simulmatics’s methodology and their electorate and voting behavior machine – its “People Machine” – was put into practice for the Kennedy presidential campaign of 1962. Simulmatics had unique and accomplished employees led by founder Ed Greenfield, a combination of social scientist and super salesman. Lepore reflects on him and the simulations the company created with the People Machine. There are even lessons for today.

Jill Lepore describes efforts to develop a computer to predict voting behavior.

The Rise and Fall of Simulmatics

When the People Machine came to public attention just after the Kennedy victory, it was greeted with near universal condemnation. Considered an unfair, perhaps even sinister, advantage, in which people were categorized like things, the company (and campaign) faced a brief public relations disaster. But Greenfield and his team were believers in using quantitative methods to gain insights into human behavior, something that could be of value to a wide range of possible clients beyond just political campaigns. In different ways, companies, governments, and the defense department stood to benefit. Let’s take a quick look at the company’s life history – which only lasted about ten years.

Lepore describes the rise and fall of the Simulmatics Corporation.

Simulmatics earned income in most years from US Defense Department contracts, via the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The 1960s had plenty of opportunities for consulting during the US’s forays into Latin America and Viet Nam. It’s a complicated story, as complex as the land and peoples of those nations, but the essential services Simulmatics were providing were related to two main areas: counterinsurgency (in Latin America and Viet Nam) and preventing newly de-colonized nations from aligning with the Soviet Union. To accomplish this, they led several projects that performed activities like monitoring local and national media in these countries for keywords via content analysis which might suggest impending revolution or other instabilities.

As the 1970s wound down, Simulmatics encountered opposition from a number of sources, none more vocal and energetic than students protesting against the company and da Solla Pool personally, then a professor at MIT. In many ways, the company served as a shell company to disguise the participation of fellow university academics participating in the kind of military research Simulmatics was conducting from public scrutiny.

Jill Lepore explains how student unrest limited government options for hiring academics.

Living Legacies

Da Solla Pool had a very interesting post-Simulmatics career, becoming a futurist and prophet of technology, including computers and networks. Widely admired but also controversial, in part due to his Simulmatics work, his predictions foresaw a great number of existing technologies we see today, as well as the conundrums and negative aspects of them.   

Jill Lepore describes how Simulmatics’ Pool presaged the future.

Did Simulmatics employees have concerns about some of the company’s decisions?

Jill Lepore illuminates how Simulmatics sparks concerns about computers undermining humanity.

Is Social Media the New People Machine?

There are many reasons to study history, and the best of them appeal to our sense of wanting to understand the present. Steve Jobs once remarked, “The 60s happened in the 70s” and, while Simulmatics closed in 1971, so much of what it and its people thought about the future, in particular its social and economic effects, came from this remarkable group of affiliated scholars who joined forces to try to apply this exciting new technology – the computer – to their work. The desire to put their disciplines on a more quantitative footing, to move beyond theorizing and speculation to conclusions based on ascertainable facts, greatly appealed to the social scientists who worked there. In the end, those conclusions were probably not that useful in changing behavior … until today. Are some of our most popular social media tools just a new “People Machine,” predicting human emotions and behaviors and then selling that information to third parties? Can “We the People” survive these forces that tend to divide us, commodify us, and sell us to the highest bidder? Lepore shares some final thoughts on that.

Jill Lepore illuminates how Simulmatics sparks concerns about computers undermining humanity.

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COVER IMAGE: John F. Kennedy campaign button courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Watch the Full Conversation

CHM Live | IF/THEN: Democracy At the Crossroads With Jill Lepore, October 21, 2020.

About The Author

Dag Spicer is CHM's senior curator and is responsible for creating the intellectual frameworks and interpretive schema of the Museum's various programs and exhibitions. He also leads the Museum's strategic direction relating to its collection of computer artifacts, films, documents, software and ephemera—the largest collection of computers and related materials in the world.

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