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Big Data and Voting Blocks Date Back to the Kennedy Campaign

A new book by historian Jill Lepore explores the early days of using big data in politics and how presidential campaigns used unprecedented technology to measure and connect with the American voter.

by Paul W. Taylor, Editor / November 3, 2020

Campaign advisers urged their client, a presidential candidate, to take progressive stands on race, religious equality and ending a long war. Thanks to advances in behavioral and computer sciences, the advisers claimed to have data to map a path to the White House, issue by issue, region by region, and voter group by voter group. You would be excused for thinking it is a contemporary story from this election cycle. You would be off by about 68 years.

Author and historian Jill Lepore’s story begins with the lead up to the 1952 presidential campaign and the efforts of Mad Men-style ad man and schemer dreamer Ed Greenfield to use a novel combination of “information extraction” and “voter prediction” to get his preferred candidate, Adlai Stevenson, elected president. It didn’t work the first time or in 1956, as Dwight D. Eisenhower handily won re-election. But four years later, Greenfield and his fledgling company, the Simulmatics Corporation, would claim credit for the election of John F. Kennedy who had reshaped his campaign around data in the so-called “people machine,” which was able to put numbers to the evolving public perceptions on the civil rights movement, the role of Catholics in public life and the Vietnam War.

Greenfield took Simulmatics role in the 1960 election victory to Wall Street the next year and pitched the company’s stock offering this way: “The Company proposes to engage principally in estimating probable human behavior by the use of computer technology.” Foreshadowing what would become known as big data, Simulmatics created models that layered voting records over demographic, economic and most any other data it could find. It used up a lot of punch cards.

Those cards were a boon to the rise of post-World War II propaganda studies (often called mass communications) while, for the first time, breaking the mass up into segments. In a political context, the segments became voting blocks, which could be understood by their preferences and biases, and targeted and manipulated accordingly.


Eventually, the need for punch cards was eliminated by the invention of magnetic-core memory at MIT. Lepore details the development and impact of the first core memory computer called SAGE, the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment that came of age at the same time as the interstate highway system and coincided with the early development of high-speed networks. As the first real-time digital computer with the first human-computer interface, SAGE provided a preview of the future of computing with a combination of hardware, software and connectivity that define the building blocks of integrated systems to this day. 

The investment in SAGE from inception to full deployment over 12 years, both in funding and the number of military and civilian staff, coupled with contractor personnel, exceeded what the federal government spent on the Manhattan Project. Lepore’s detour to tell the SAGE story brings focus to the overlooked history of government as innovator, which compelled its own people and those in the private sector to invent new technologies to meet the uniquely demanding requirements of doing the public’s business.

It is against that background of technological breakthroughs that Lepore sets the social and political aims of Simulmatics. She provides a peek into the world of New England elites as they reacted to, reviled against and even invested in the company because of its potential to create (or destroy) the future of democracy. Simulmatics promised to radically change the way public opinion could be shaped. Politically and financially well-connected New Englanders demurred, warning about the threats posed by the startup, but stipulated they didn’t want to stand in the way of progress.

Jilll Lepore (Photo: Dari Pillsbury)


Lepore also gives us a good look at the personalities behind Simulmatics, especially its founder.

“Ed Greenfield collected people the way other men collect comic books or old stamps or vintage cars…. He was like a ten-million-volt Looney Tunes electric magnet, a giant red-handled iron U that pulled everyone toward him. Plink, plink, plink.” Elsewhere and often in the book, Lepore describes Greenfield as an “all-around huckster” but one with vision and heart. “Ed Greenfield had big ideas and big ideals, big liberal ideas ... especially civil liberties and civil rights.”

In spite of Greenfield’s promises and efforts, Simulmatics was a commercial flop, filing for bankruptcy in 1970.

Without Simulmatics, there would be less need to profile the gregarious Greenfield, who may be the very model of a modern technology startup founder, warts and all. That said, you could argue that it is SAGE, not Simulmatics, that delivered more fully on LePore’s thesis of “inventing the future.” Likewise, Ithiel de Sola Pool, who cofounded Simulmatics with Greenfield and taught at MIT, left a larger legacy, which The New York Times described as a controversial “pioneer in communications research and was one of the first social scientists to use computer models in analyzing political behavior.”

If Then appears at the apex of a presidential election cycle marked by unfinished business related to race, religion and foreign wars. Some 58 years later, startup founders are still like Greenfield – driven, tech optimists who believe they can change the world – with hucksterism in their DNA. Similarly, startups still make up words to brand themselves in the near term and in the hopes of defining a phenomenon in the long term. And like Simulmatics, stuff still doesn’t work or deliver on its promises.

More importantly, Lepore implores us to remember that here in 2020, with much ballyhooed advances in AI and big data, we have the technology to do what Simulmatics could not. She warns us not to simply demur without a careful ethical examination of the perils of a “machine in which humanity would in the early 21st 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.” 

At what point do we dare stand in the way of progress?

If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

Jill Lepore

Liveright. 432 pages. $28.95.

 

This article was originally published by Governing, Government Technology's sister publication.

 

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