Before Google And Facebook, A 20th Century ‘People Machine’ Tried To Predict The Future

Oct 23, 2020

The Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959, aimed to use data to simulate human behavior. Author Jill Lepore explore's the company's history in her book, "If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future."
Credit Cordelia Calvert

Before tech companies like Google and Facebook, before algorithms became the norm for internet experiences, a mid-20th century company attempted to manipulate the future by simulating human behavior. The Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959, built a “People Machine” that modeled everything from how people might vote to what kind of dog food they might buy. The company’s clients included the Democratic National Committee, The New York Times and Department of Defense.

But issues with the company’s colorful founders and their personal lives led to Simulmatics’ collapse. After it closed its doors in 1970, many of the archives of its work were lost. But Harvard University American history professor Jill Lepore came across some of the company’s papers in MIT’s archives, and she set off to uncover 11 years of its history. Host Frank Stasio talks with Lepore about her new book, “If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.” Lepore is also a staff writer at The New Yorker and host of the podcast, “The Last Archive.”