Jill Lepore on the Destructive Power of Tech
David talks to the American historian Jill Lepore about the damage new technology can do to democracy, from the 1960s to the present. Who first tried to manipulate the minds of the electorate? Where did the money come from? What happened when the same technology was applied to fighting the Vietnam War? Plus we discuss US presidential elections from 1960 to 2020: do the machines really decide who is going to win, and if he does win this time, what might Joe Biden be able to do about it?
The Simulmatics Corporation was one of the first data analytics companies founded in 1959.
- They were collecting personal data, coming up with mathematical models for human behavior, making predictions, and selling that as a service.
- They got their big break in the 1960 election.
Advertising was basically invented to defend corporations against muckraking journalists.
- It became something else as modern consumer society emerged.
- Eventually, some of the ad agencies began working for the Republican Party. The Republican Party is the party of big business, so it’s nor surprising that they’ve always had a leg up in political advertising.
Was the Simulmatics Corporation for real?
- Their insights were not particularly startling.
- The Simulmatics Corporations were liberals who were trying to convince the Democratic Party to take a stronger position on civil rights by telling them that black voters could make a difference in the election.
- There’s something kind of creepy about the whole thing: a bunch of mid-century, white, liberal men building a machine to try to understand people of color and women.
- A tight election is good for huxters. There’s a huge, enabling industry of journalism to oversell this kind of technology.
There’s a big gap between how we understand politics should work in the physical world and the mysteriousness and anarchy of the digital world.
- Democracies are bad at reforming themselves because the winners are not incentivized to do it.
- The monopoly today is the monopoly of the means of doing politics.
- The pandemic makes it worse. We are now more wedded to our devices and it is harder to conduct campaigns outside of them.
Mentioned in this Episode:
- Jill Lepore, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future
- Jill’s podcast, ‘The Last Archive: Who Killed Truth?’
- Sue Halpern on the Trump campaign’s mobile app
- Jill in The New Yorker, ‘How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future’
- Our last episode with Jill on the American Nation
- Jia Tolentino for the BBC, ‘The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams’
- Evan Osnos’ profile of Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker
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