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If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

de Jill Lepore

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3241473,691 (3.97)6
"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 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 the 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"--… (més)
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Lepore’s clever turns of phrase often rub me the wrong way, but this is a really interesting story about a forgotten data analysis company from the early days of computerization. It failed, but it was employed by major political campaigns and by the military in Vietnam before it did, and in a larger sense its mission succeeded. Connecting personal to professional lives, Lepore argues that its insistence on the knowledge of white men and the promise of data-enabled power to control others who were agitating for a share in governance was both what made it persuasive and what made it unable to see its own weaknesses. I also didn’t realize just how much of a huckster Ithiel de Sola Pool was. (A big one, though Lepore credits him with being right about what the internet could disrupt.) ( )
  rivkat | Mar 16, 2023 |
Behavioral scientists discover computer aided data analysis in the 1950's
Jill Lepore writes very well, and has an interesting but previously obscure story to tell. Simulmatics Corporation was founded to use computers to predict human responses to political and advertising messages, in 1959. The various characters involved were shady, and in one case, bipolar. They obtained contracts initially from politcal campaigns, and John Kennedy's win was tainted by its association with the computer analysis of voting preferences. The corporation became involved in Vietnam, opening an office in Saigon, to try to assess the effectiveness of propaganda. The effort was doomed by the inability of any of the reasearchers to speak Vietnamese, and the reliance on translators who did not accurately render the questionaires to Vietnamese, and were seen as part of the enemy. The corporation went bankrupt in 1970, and its leaders, particularly Ithiel de Sola Pool, were accused by the war protestors of being war criminals. Dr. Lepore describes the furor raised by the proposal for establishing a National Data Bank, a project pushed by Simulmatics, resisted by Congress, but now realized in the multitrillion points of personal data stored and manipulated by Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and other corporations. The descriptions and pictures of the punch cards, teletype terminals, and room-filling computers with speeds and memories a million times less powerful than an I-phone are fasicinating. Dr. Lepore had access to letters from wives and women employed by Simulmatics, and thoroughly examined the sexist nature of the times.
Quotes:
"For a long time, this stuff was known either as propaganda or as psychological warfare (the Nazi version was known as Weltanshauungskrieg, or worldview warfare), but after a swhile, people who worried about how that sounded started calling it the study of "mass communication."" (page 33)

[Ithiel de Sola Pool arguing for his security clearance in 1950 quoted Wendel Willkie] "Willkie once said, with reference to his own past, that anyone who is not a socialist at 20 has something wrong with his heart and any one who is still a socialist at 30 has something wrong with his head" (page 53)

"(The [U.S. Army] Signal Corps would retire its last pigeon in 1957)" (page 68)

[The election of 1960] "Kennedy's electoral margin of victory, 303 to 219, was wide, but the popular vote was close enough to lead to two recounts, efforts led by the Republican National Committee but not endorsed by Nixon, who said, privately, "Our country cannot afford the agony of a constitutional crisis -- and I damn well will not be a party to creating one just to become President or anything else." " (page 124)

"On election night, [The New York Times in 1904] it broadcast the results from its building in New York by way of searchlights that could be seen for thirty miles, as if the building itself had become a lighthouse. Steady light to the west meant a Republican victory in the presidential race, steady light to the east a Democratic one; flashing lights in different combinations broadcast the winners of congressional and gubernatorial races. That is what is meant by a news "flash." " (page 149)

"The Simulmatics Corporation is a relic of its time ... a casualty of midcentury American liberalism. But the People Machine [Simulmatics algorithm and database] was also hobbled by its time, by the technological limitations of its day: the 1960s threw sand in its gears. Data was scarce. Models were weak. Computers were slow. The machine faltered, and the men who built it could not repair it: the company's behavioral sicentists had very little business sense, its chief mathematician struggled with insanity, its computer scientist fell behind the latest research, it president drank to much, and nearly all their marriages were falling apart. 'They treat their wives like dirt, said Minnow McPhee. The machine sputtered, sparks flying, smoke rising, and ground to a halt, its light blinking, wildly, desperately, before going dark.
Simulmatics failed, but not before its scientists built a very early version of the machine in which humanity would in the early twenty-first century find itself trapped, a machine that applies the science of psychological warfare to the affairs of ordinary life, a machine that manipulates opinion, exploits attention, commodifies information, divides voters, fractures communities, alienates individuals, and undermines democracy." (pages 321 to 322) ( )
  neurodrew | Feb 5, 2022 |
It is reasonable to assert that attempts to predict, and manipulate, human behavior using computers is a recent phenomenon, started by companies like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. According to this book, such an assertion is also very wrong.

It was the early 1960's, the days of UNIVAC and ENIAC. A corporation called Simulmatics was part of John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. They were the first to use computer simulation and prediction to chop the US electorate into hundreds of categories. That way, they could test various campaign slogans and statements, to see how they would work. It led to much speculation about computers taking over America, and about office workers being fired by electronic bosses. In 1961, Simulmatics targeted segmented consumers with customized advertising messages.

In 1963, Simulmatics attempted to simulate a developing nation's entire economy, with a view toward halting socialism. The Vietnam War was raging, so, in 1965, Simulmatics opened an office in Saigon. Their intention was to do psychological research as a way to wage war with computer run data analysis (these were also days of Robert McNamara's "whiz kids" in the Pentagon). Back in America, in 1967 and 1968, the company attempted to build a machine to predict race riots. It went bankrupt soon after.

This a fascinating book that illuminates a lesser-known bit of American history. Attempts to predict human behavior, with computers, have gone on for many years, even by white liberals (like the employees of Simulmatics). This book is very highly recommended. ( )
  plappen | Jan 2, 2022 |
Can't recommend. Lepore does not seem to have put in the time to understand the tech that she's writing about, or its implications in terms of "inventing the future", or the how very far it was from anything like "inventing the future". Simulmatics, from what she writes, does not seem like a particularly visionary enterprise. Instead it seems more like the Theranos of its time - a startup founded on some potentially legitimate and interesting ideas and charismatic leadership that absolutely failed to deliver on its technical promises, and probably never actually had the capacity to back up those promises, and which ultimately had little significance for anyone not directly involved. ( )
1 vota kiparsky | Sep 21, 2021 |
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"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 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 the 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"--

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