Simulmatics is a relic of its time, an artifact of the Eisenhower-Kennedy-Nixon Cold War; a product of the Madison Avenue of M&M’s and toothpaste ads; a casualty of mid-century American liberalism. The Simulations Enterprises of “The 480” is a mega-corporation and the “simulectronics” specialists in “Simulacron-3” are technical geniuses. The real Simulmatics Corporation was a small, struggling company. It was said to be the “A-bomb of the social sciences.” But, like a long-buried mine, it took decades to detonate. The People Machine was hobbled by its time, by the technological limitations of the nineteen-sixties. Data were scarce. Models were weak. Computers were slow. The men who built the machine could not repair it: the company’s behavioral scientists had little business sense, its chief mathematician contended with insanity, its computer scientist fell behind the latest research, its president drank too much, and nearly all their marriages were falling apart. The machine sputtered, sparks flying, smoke rising, and ground to a halt.
Simulmatics failed. And yet it had built a very early version of the machine in which humanity would find itself trapped in the early twenty-first century, 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, atomizes communities, alienates individuals, and undermines democracy. Facebook, Palantir, Cambridge Analytica, Amazon, the Internet Research Agency, Google: these are, every one, the children of Simulmatics.
“The Company proposes to engage principally in estimating probable human behavior by the use of computer technology,” Greenfield promised investors in Simulmatics’ initial stock offering. By the time of the 2016 election, the mission of Simulmatics had become the mission of nearly every corporation. Collect data. Write code: if/then/else. Detect patterns. Predict behavior. Direct action. Encourage consumption. Influence elections. If Simulmatics had not begun this work, then it would have been done by someone else. But, if someone else had done it, then it might have been done differently.
Jill Lepore, “All the King’s Data”, The New Yorker (3 & 10 August 2020), 24.