CHM Live Virtual Event

IF/THEN: Democracy at The Crossroads

Award-Winning Historian Jill Lepore with CHM Senior Curator Dag Spicer

In 1960, newspapers reported that John F. Kennedy’s winning presidential campaign had clinched victory with the help of a “secret weapon”: a computer that crunched troves of personal data to profile voters, thus allowing Kennedy to better target his political messaging. The effect on the election was overstated but the campaign was the genesis of a now long forgotten consulting company that fused psychology, computing, and statistics into formulas for predicting human behavior.

Founded in 1959 by some of the nation’s leading social scientists, the company -- called Simulmatics -- proposed to predict and manipulate future human behavior by running computer programs on IBM mainframe computers of the day.

The company was an odd mix of the professional and the personal: in summers, with their wives and children in tow, company scientists met on Long Island under a geodesic, done where they built their “People Machine," a computer program aimed at providing simulation, newly energized by the arrival of electronic digital computers, for profit. Whether it was buying a dishwasher, casting a vote, or planning an insurgency, Simulatics could simulate it.

Deploying their “People Machine” from New York, Washington, Cambridge, and even Saigon, the scientists of Simulmatics believed they had invented “the A-bomb of the social sciences.”

While Simulatics didn't survive the 1970s, its aim of predicting human behavior has never been important to us to think about than now. 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? 

Listen to the conversation of award-winning historian Jill Lepore with CHM senior curator, Dag Spicer as they explore the story of Simulmatics as a cautionary tale to decode how we got to now in a world of predictive analytics and politics and what it means for the future of freedom and democracy.

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Oct 21, 2020
11:00 am

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Add to Calendar 10/21/2020 11:00 am America/Los_Angeles IF/THEN: Democracy at The Crossroads Award-Winning Historian Jill Lepore with CHM Senior Curator Dag Spicer Virtual Event
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