Book Review: If Then

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“They built a machine to control and predict what they could not. They are the long-dead, white-whiskered grandfathers of Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin and Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen and Elon Musk. The Simulmatics Corporation is a missing link in the history of technology, a clasp that fastens the first half of the twentieth century to the beginning of the twenty-first, a future in which humanity’s every move is predicted by algorithms that attempt to direct and influence our each and every decision through the simulation of our very selves, this particular hell.”

That’s from the prologue to If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore. It’s as good a statement as any of what the book is about.

If Then is a history and it’s interesting for two reasons. It’s a history of the interaction of corporations, government, and technology during the Vietnam Era. It’s also a history of the part of the computer revolution that predates and has little to do with Silicon Valley.

Those two subjects make this book unique. Dr. Lepore’s research and writing make it excellent.

Dr. Lepore chose to focus on the Simulmatics corporation and its history as a way of presenting both topics.  That meant that Dr. Lepore had to leave some things out. Don’t read this book if you’re looking for a survey of technological developments. Do read this book if you want to understand some of the precursors to the world of fake news and Cambridge Analytica.

Despite the subtitle, Simulmatics did not “invent the future” by itself. Some of the people and companies who helped get only a partial reference or none at all. The government did many important things that aren’t mentioned. For example, there was a computerized model called TEMPER (Technological, Economic, Military, Political Evaluation Routine). It seems to me like an attempt to model everything. Simulmatics reviewed TEMPER for the military and described it as equal in importance to the Wright Brothers’ first flight.

Simulmatics declared bankruptcy in 1970, so the last hundred pages of the book are devoted to the Vietnam Era. The thread that runs through both parts of the book is Ithiel de Sola Pool. He was a founder of Simulmatics, a professor at MIT, reviled by students for his work for the government, and the author of Technologies of Freedom.

In A Nutshell

If you want a good book about computer technology, the attempt to model human behavior, and the period from 1960 to the end of the 20th century, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore is well-researched and a great read. If you’re looking for details on the technology or business, look elsewhere.

A Special Note about the Audiobook

I thought the audiobook was awful and an excellent example of why authors shouldn’t read their own work unless they are good readers. Dr. Lepore is not a good reader. She reads at varying speeds, mostly fast. When she quotes someone or an official report, she shifts to a sing-songy voice about an octave lower than her natural reading voice. This might work face-to-face, but it’s irritating in an audiobook.

Sometimes, she tries to read too fast and her words run together. Other times, she swallows the ends of words at the conclusion of a sentence.

All that’s bad enough, but the most-irritating thing to me was the frequent mispronunciation of names that could be easily researched. My favorite (if that’s the right word) is her mispronunciation of “Ballantine.”. The Ballantine Company makes a variety of beers and ales. She has reason to mention the company and its advertisements. Many of those advertisements are on YouTube, where she could hear how the company pronounces its name. In her pronunciation, it’s Ballan-teen to rhyme with “green.” But the company, in all its ads, pronounces the I like “why.” For them, Ballantine rhymes with “fine.”

Suggestion: If you’re thinking about listening to this audiobook, listen to a sample first. The things that bother me may not bother you.


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