A US presidential election, bruising wars in an emerging economy, and race riots influenced by the dark arts of data collection. You could be forgiven for thinking a Harvard historian has written a book about the present moment. A nominee for the FT/McKinsey business book of the year, If Then: How Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future is an exciting fable of the future deciphered by untangling the life of a little known company, Simulmatics, from the mid-1900s.

Good historians are great storytellers who connect the past to the present with far-sighted fluency. In Harvard’s Jill Lepore however, we discover that special breed – a great story-finder. In the midst of chronicling world-changing events, she also found herself in the enviable role of archaeologist. Stumbling upon the story of a long forgotten enterprise, she excavated the tumultuous tale of a notable ancestor of Silicon valley’s mega corporations.

The original analytics powerhouse

Simulmatics was founded in 1959, and went public in 1961. It was the brainchild of the Madison Avenue advertising impresario Ed Greenfield and the men he enlisted. Unknown to many, this obscure corporation is cast by Lepore as the “missing link” of the information age. Her captivating account lashes together a historian’s eye for detail with a journalist’s unforgiving candour.

What she manages to uncover is no less than a scandalous scoop. An outfit that tugged the computing power of its day into unravelling social networks, crafting political manipulation, and profiteering from it. Except, this happened over half a century ago and provided the uncanny premonition of everything we are living through today.

Here’s what we missed when this story was consigned to obscurity in MIT’s archives. As far back as the 1950s, Ed Greenfield set out to create an analytics powerhouse that could predict human behaviour. It was to be built by a band of brilliant believers: a political theorist, a mathematician, a behavioural scientist, a market researcher, and a computer scientist. Men who would massage the mass collection of data into an enabler of audacious goals.

Whether it was winning a presidential election by manoeuvring the messaging, or quashing rebellion by spreading misinformation, Or policing dissent by predicting it before it took place, the “What If” men, as they came to be known, promised the lure of simulating prior knowledge. “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.” Lepore declares.

Using personal data for political messaging

Today, many credit the success of Silicon Valley’s demigods to “Bayesian Thinking” – a theory of probability that changes the likelihood of future consumer choice by weighing their current actions. Tap on low-calorie sugar on an app and chances are that you might want diet-friendly foods. You trade your information with a tech company only to marvel at its intuitive grasp of your desires and the fulfilment of your urges as a consumer. You are to be attracted, influenced and milked. This is precisely why irony abounds in this “never-before-told” tale where the past, sadly and ruefully, does not inform the future.

This is not, however, a rant against the unchecked greed of our digital overlords. It is the biography of well-intentioned entrepreneurs and technocrats creating the bedrock of the Analytics Industrial Complex. By bringing together newfound computing power with large scale data collection, they set out to build the “People Machine” – a computerised simulation of human intention in response to specific questions.

Their first aim was predicting the preferences of an electorate to aid the John F Kennedy campaign in 1960. JFK’s victory then catalysed the political establishment’s use of these methods despite its reluctance to be seen using a “machine’s advice”.

Travel forward to the 21st century. During her 2019 testimony, Cambridge Analytica executive Britanny Kaiser described the psychological warfare wrought through Facebook thus: “It’s like a boomerang. You send your data out, it gets analysed, and it comes back at you as targeted messaging to change your behaviour.” It’s a deafening echo of a forgotten past that should leave us aghast.

In the decade that followed its creation, Simulmatics attempted everything, from campaign messaging and consumer product media planning to election night reporting in the US, from war propaganda in Vietnam to riot-policing in urban America’s racially charged neighbourhoods. Each uncertain experiment fuelled the desire to do even more of it – the refining of techniques hobbled by patchy data and propelled by a heedless devotion at the altar of prediction.

An ominous foreshadowing of the present

If Then isn’t just a corporate chronicle of shambolic ambition or naïveté about the future. It is also the tale of the people tethered to the dawn of the information era. The parable of white men, oblivious to their own biases and moral bankruptcy. Their own personal stories charting the hollowing out of their marriages. Even as they sought to develop a computer aided model of human behaviour, they mistreated the very women in their lives who understood it so well.

The origins of Silicon Valley lay in a post-world war era, where only white men with the knowledge of war time technologies were favoured to become its pioneers. Sadly, now, as then, they were unable to see the devastating parallels with their personal lives or foretell their own future undoing.

Lepore’s book is the defining tale of our times. A foreshadowing of what happens when politics, business and technology worship intellect without ethics, and submit to market forces instead of morality. It is one thing to use data to sell utilitarian products. Quite another when it is used to fiddle with the more “irrational” levers of the human condition – compassion and cruelty, altruism and avarice, empathy and apathy. Mixed with these qualities, data can go from creating customised shopping menus to crafting weaponised cultural Molotov cocktails.

Simulmatics is an artefact of the earliest era of analytics. Lepore unearths its lessons like a skilled archaeologist and crafts its narrative with the deft touch of a philosopher playwright. She forces us to confront our collective forgetfulness. Her insights are an indictment of negligent corporations and policy makers. But they are also a mirror to a society that has traded its data privacy and agency for mundane merchandise.

Lepore’s startling discovery is reminiscent of an archaeological find in Australia a few years ago. A 700-year-old aboriginal skull was found with a fatal dent caused by a boomerang that hacked its owner down. What happens when we are careless about the past, and continue to allow our data to be aimed at our heads, should be all too obvious.

If Then: How Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

If Then: How Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, Jill Lepore, Liveright.