In 2015, Jill Lepore was researching a piece for the New Yorker about the history of public opinion polling. It was fairly easy to pinpoint the start (1935, George Gallup) and easy enough to see the current situation (Cambridge Analytica, Facebook misinformation campaigns). “I couldn’t quite see where the turn had come, from polling to data collection and modeling,” said Lepore, a history professor at Harvard. A few scattered references to a company called Simulmatics piqued her interest. “I really came across this story in the archives,” said Lepore, “which is the most common way that I end up writing a book.” The result is “If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future,” which last week was longlisted for the National Book Award in nonfiction.
Born in 1959, Simulmatics closed its doors in 1970; its lifespan tracks almost perfectly with the rise of