Power  /  Q&A

“We Don’t Want the Program”: On How Tech Can’t Fix Democracy

“Start-ups: they need philosophers, political theorists, historians, poets. Critics.”

Jill Lepore (JL): To get this conversation started, let me begin by telling you a little bit about the Simulmatics Corporation. It’s an extraordinarily obscure story that I fell into when I opened an archival box at the MIT Library. The contents of that box, of hundreds of boxes, really, answered a lot of questions that I didn’t even know I had. And so, I felt obligated to write a book.

The Simulmatics Corporation was founded in 1959 by a guy named Ed Greenfield, a dazzlingly charismatic Madison Avenue adman who was also a devoted liberal philanthropist and a very devout supporter of civil rights causes who had worked on Democratic Party campaigns throughout the 1950s.

Greenfield was also a really smart guy. He was very drawn to the kinds of men that David Halberstam called—with considerable irony—the “Best and the Brightest.” Greenfield was particularly interested in the research being done in the behavioral sciences and in the emerging field of computer science in the 1950s. He was like Danny Ocean: he put together this incredible team of people—in this case, to design an election simulator.

Today, people simulate elections all the time, but it was brand new in the 1950s. When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense: if you were interested in trying to undertake the creation of a predictive model for human behavior in the 1950s, voting would be the thing that you’d most likely want to work on, because it’s one of the few realms of human behavior for which there was, at the time, a vast quantity of data: census data, public-opinion surveys, polls, and election returns. Democracy generates its own data. And so, people working in the quantitative social sciences were really drawn to the study of voting behavior. Greenfield’s company, Simulmatics, operated on the idea that, once you could perfect a model to predict voting behavior, you could use it to predict all sorts of behavior, including consumer choices.

Founded in 1959, the company’s first client was the DNC, and its next client was the John F. Kennedy campaign, for which it provided advice on how to defeat Richard Nixon in 1960. And after that project, Simulmatics worked in nearly every realm that, today, you can find predictive analytics at work. It provided advertising advice for companies like Colgate-Palmolive and Ralston Purina; it provided media advice for television stations. It did a big project for the New York Times on data analysis on election night. And it conducted a number of projects for the federal government.