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“What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale, but without informed consent”*…

Illustration by Anders Nilsen

“Which category have they put you in?”

This sinister question—at least, it was meant to sound sinister—headlined the advertising copy for The 480, a 1964 novel by Eugene Burdick. His previous best sellers, The Ugly American and Fail-Safe, had caused sensations in political circles, and the new one promised to do the same. Its jacket featured the image of a punched card. The title referred to 480 categories of voter, defined by region, religion, age, and other demographic characteristics, such as “Midwestern, rural, Protestant, lower income, female.” Many readers recoiled from the notion of being sorted into one of these boxes. The New York Times’s reviewer called The 480 a “shock novel” and found it implausible.

What was so shocking? What was implausible? The idea that a company might use computer technology and behavioral science to gather and crunch data on American citizens, with the nefarious goal of influencing a presidential election.

In the 1950s and 1960s this seemed like science fiction. Actually, The 480 was a thinly disguised roman à clef, based on a real-life company called Simulmatics, which had secretly worked for the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy. Burdick had been a political operative himself and knew the Simulmatics founders well. The company’s confidential reports and memoranda went straight into his prose. And the 480 categories—listed in an appendix to the novel—were the real Simulmatics voter types, the creation of what one of its founders called “a kind of Manhattan Project gamble in politics.”

Simulmatics was founded in 1959 and lasted eleven years. Jill Lepore mentioned its involvement in the Kennedy campaign in These Truths (2018), her monumental history of the United States; she was already on the trail of the story she tells in her new book, If Then. Lepore is a brilliant and prolific historian with an eye for unusual and revealing stories, and this one is a remarkable saga, sometimes comical, sometimes ominous: a “shadow history of the 1960s,” as she writes, because Simulmatics stumbled through the decade as a bit player, onstage for the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Great Society, the riots and protests. It began with grand ambitions to invent a new kind of predictive behavioral science, in a research environment increasingly tied to a rising defense establishment amid the anxiety of the cold war. It ended ignominiously, in embarrassment and bankruptcy.

Irving Kristol, the future architect of neoconservativism, dismissed Simulmatics in 1964 as “a struggling little company which, despite the fact that it worked on a few problems for the Kennedy organization in 1960, has since had a difficult time making ends meet,” and he wasn’t wrong. Today it is almost completely forgotten. Yet Lepore finds in it a plausible untold origin story for our current panopticon: a world of constant surveillance, if not by the state then by megacorporations that make vast fortunes by predicting and manipulating our behavior—including, most insidiously, our behavior as voters…

The ever-illuminating James Gleick (@JamesGleick) unpacks the remarkable Jill Lepore‘s new history, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future: “Simulating Democracy.”

See also: this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek, and for historical perspective, “Age of Invention: The Tools of Absolutism.”

* Jaron Lanier (see, e.g., here and here)

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As we think about the targets painted on our chests, we might recall that it was on this date in 2011 that Facebook introduced the Timeline as the design of a user’s main Facebook page.

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Written by LW

September 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Got no checkbooks, got no banks”*…

 

Trinidad and Tobago, the tiny twin-island nation off the coast of Venezuela, has struck gold. Its newly re-released $50 note (TT) earned top billing in this year’s competition convened by the International Bank Note Society (IBNS).

Designed in partnership with the British banknote manufacturer De La Rue to commemorate the 50th (golden) anniversary of the country’s Central Bank, the $50 note shows familiar takes on its national symbols like its coat of arms, a red hibiscus flower, and a red capped cardinal bird, its wings fanned out like a palm tree. The back of the note depicts a smiling carnival dancer, collaged in front of the 22-story Central Bank and Ministry of Finance twin towers, which are the tallest buildings in the entire country…

Read the whole story and see the runners-up at “The world’s best banknotes of the year.”

* Irving Berlin, “I Got the Sun in the Morning”

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As we reach for our wallets, we might recall that it was on this date in 2012 that Facebook went public.  The IPO was the biggest in technology and one of the biggest in Internet history, with a peak market capitalization of over $104 billion.  Some pundits called it a “cultural milestone”; in any case, a great deal of money was “printed.”

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Written by LW

May 18, 2015 at 1:01 am

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all”*…

 

Facebook has analyzed its well-known meme, “List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. They do not have to be the ‘right’ books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.”

It gathered an anonymized sample of over 130,000 status updates matching “10 books” or “ten books” appearing in the last two weeks of August 2014 (although the meme has been active over at least a year). 63.7% of the posters were in the US, followed by 9.3%in India, and 6.3% in the UK. Women outnumbered men 3.1:1. The average age was 37.

Here are the top 20 books, along with a percentage of all lists (having at least one of the top 500 books) that contained them.

  1. 21.08 Harry Potter series – J.K. Rowling
  2. 14.48 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  3. 13.86 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
  4. 7.48  The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
  5. 7.28  Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  6. 7.21  The Holy Bible
  7. 5.97  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  8. 5.82  The Hunger Games Trilogy – Suzanne Collins
  9. 5.70  The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
  10. 5.63  The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
  11. 5.61  The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  12. 5.37  1984 – George Orwell
  13. 5.26  Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  14. 5.23  Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
  15. 5.11  The Stand – Stephen King
  16. 4.95  Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  17. 4.38  A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
  18. 4.27  The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  19. 4.05  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
  20. 4.01  The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

Read more here.  And see how the same list varied in non-English-speaking areas here (spoiler alert: Harry Potter still rules…).

* Oscar Wilde

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As we turn the page, we might send leather-bound birthday wishes to poet, iconic bad boy (and, as readers will recall,  father of the redoubtable Ada Lovelace) George Gordon, Lord Byron; he was was born on this date in 1788.  Byron once famously suggested that “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”  Still, history suggests, even then…

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Written by LW

January 22, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”*…

 

From Susanna Wolff at College Humor,

Start at the beginning…

Or click through to a particular period…

More social history.

[TotH to EWW]

* George Santayana

 

As we slouch toward Bethlehem, we might recall that it was on this date in 1776 that five students at the College of William and Mary founded what has become the most prestigious undergraduate honor society in U.S. higher education, Phi Beta Kappa.  When the Revolutionary War forced William and Mary to close in 1780, newly formed chapters at Harvard and Yale took over Phi Beta Kappa’s development; by the time that the William and Mary chapter was revived in 1851, Phi Beta Kappa was active at colleges throughout New England.  By the end of the nineteenth century, the once secretive, exclusively male social group had transformed itself into a national honor society, open to men and women, dedicated to fostering and recognizing excellence in the liberal arts and sciences.

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Written by LW

December 5, 2011 at 1:01 am

Special Academy Awards Prep Edition: Inside “Social Network”…

Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin, the odds-on favorite for this year’s Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, set out to be an actor.  But as Pete Hammond reports in Deadline Hollywood, his career took a different turn…

…those early plans were trumped when he began writing for the stage. In 1989, at the age of 28, he was named Outstanding American Playwright by the Outer Critics Circle for A Few Good Men. Just three years later, he wrote the screenplay for the film version which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. His subsequent success in film has included scripts for Malice (1993), The American President (1995), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) and the upcoming Moneyball. As an Emmy-winning television writer and producer, he was behind critically acclaimed [and your correspondent’s all-time fave] Sports Night, long-running The West Wing, and the short-lived Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. But he has never been nominated for an Academy Award.

Discover how Sorkin (who worked from the book proposal, not the book, which wasn’t written when he started) did his research, how he shaped his characters, and how he approaches a “non-fiction film”…

I would tell anyone that if you are seeing a movie that begins with “The following is a true story…,” you need to look at that movie the way you would a painting and not a photograph. This is my take on what happened. You can put a bowl of fruit on a table and have 10 people take a picture of it and those 10 photographs would look pretty much like each other. If you ask 10 painters to paint it, you’re going to get a lot of different versions of the thing. And so I was telling a true story, but very quickly the people became characters to me and not historical figures. And people, and properties of people, and properties of characters, actually have very little to do with each other. I know people don’t speak in dialogue, and life doesn’t play itself out in a series of connected scenes that form a narrative. But that’s what a writer does.

… and more in his interview with Hammond.  As a special bonus, use the link there (or here) to download a pdf of Sorkin’s full script.

And lest one fret that Sorkin’s dreams of greasepaint came to naught, watch for him in his cameo as the advertising executive in Social Network.

As we recheck our privacy settings on Facebook, we might recall that it was on this date in 1981 that Hill Street Blues premiered on NBC.  The first show from Sorkin’s spiritual forefather Stephen Bochco, the gritty HSB resurrected the then-moribund “cop show” genre and introduced the ensemble cast as a structural feature of series.  By the time the show signed off in May 1987, it had set the records for most Emmy nominations and most Emmys won in a single season.  In its first season alone, it received eight Emmy awards– a debut season record surpassed only by Sorkin’s ensemble political drama The West Wing.

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