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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

“Evidently, the fundamental laws of nature do not pin down a single and unique universe”*…

For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky Original printing of the Flammarion engraving, from 1888.
Artist unknown; from Camille Flammarion, L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire

The name of the image—the “Flammarion engraving”—may not ring a bell, but you’ve seen it many times. It depicts a traveler wearing a cloak and clutching a walking-stick; behind him is a varied landscape of towns and trees; surrounding all is a crystalline shell fretted with countless stars. Reaching the edge of his world, the traveler pushes through to the other side and is dazzled by a whole new world of light and rainbows and fire.

The image was first published in 1888 in a book by French astronomer Camille Flammarion. (The original engraving was black and white, although colorized versions now abound.) He notes that the sky does look like a dome on which the celestial bodies are attached, but impressions deceive. “Our ancestors,” Flammarion writes, “imagined that this blue vault was really what the eye would lead them to believe it to be; but, as Voltaire remarks, this is about as reasonable as if a silk-worm took his web for the limits of the universe.”

The engraving has come to be seen as a symbol of humanity’s quest for knowledge, but I prefer a more literal reading, in keeping with Flammarion’s intent. Time and again in the history of science, we have found an opening in the edge of the known world and poked through. The universe does not end at the orbit of Saturn, nor at the outermost stars of the Milky Way, nor at the most distant galaxy in our field of view. Today cosmologists think whole other universes may be out there.

But that is almost quotidian compared to what quantum mechanics reveals. It is not just a new opening in the dome, but a new kind of opening. Physicists and philosophers have long argued over what quantum theory means, but, in some way or other, they agree that it reveals a vast realm lying beyond the range of our senses. Perhaps the purest incarnation of this principle—the most straightforward reading of the equations of quantum theory—is the many-worlds interpretation, put forward by Hugh Everett in the 1950s. In this view, everything that can happen does in fact happen, somewhere in a vast array of universes, and the probabilities of quantum theory represent the relative numbers of universes experiencing one outcome or another. As David Wallace, a philosopher of physics at the University of Southern California, put it in his 2012 book, The Emergent Multiverse, when we take quantum mechanics literally, “the world turns out to be rather larger than we had anticipated: Indeed, it turns out our classical ‘world’ is only a small part of a much larger reality.”…

If multiverses seem weird, it’s because we need to revamp our notions of time and space: “The Multiple Multiverses May Be One and the Same.”

* Alan Lightman, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

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As we find one in many, we might send relativistic birthday greetings to Victor Frederick “Viki” Weisskopf; he was born on this date in 1908. A theoretical physicist who contributed mightily to the golden age of quantum mechanics, Weisskopf did postdoctoral work with Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr. He emigrated from Austria to the U.S. in 1937 to escape Nazi persecution. During World War II he was Group Leader of the Theoretical Division of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, and later campaigned against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

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Written by LW

September 20, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I traveled far and wide through many different times”*…

Fifty years ago this month Harold D. Craft, Jr., published a remarkable black-on-white plot in his Ph.D. dissertation at Cornell University. A stacked series of jagged lines displayed incoming radio waves from pulsar CP1919, as detected at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Several months later the chart appeared as a full-page visualization in Scientific American, this time with white lines on a field of cyan [above]…

Scientific American

In 1977, the image was included in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy

… where, two years after that, Factory Records graphic genius Peter Saville discovered it and adapted it as the cover art for Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures. He reversed the image from black-on-white to white-on-black, against the band’s stated preference for the original. “I was afraid it might look a little cheap. I was convinced that it was just sexier in black.”

It has, of course, become an icon.

* Joy Division, “Wilderness,” from Unknown Pleasures

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As we tap our toes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1985 that the U.S. Senate held hearings on what they called “porn rock.” The session was convened at the urging of the Parents Music Resource Center, a group founded by Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius, and devoted to forcing the music industry to affix Parental Advisory stickers– “warning labels”– to albums and CDs deemed to contain morally challenged material (like the “Filthy Fifteen” songs the group condemned).

Three musicians– Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snyder– testified in opposition to the proposal at the hearing… which was in the end moot, as the industry, afraid of negative publicity, agreed voluntarily to begin the labeling.

It is unclear that the “Tipper sticker” was/is effective in preventing children from being exposed to explicit content. Some, citing the “forbidden-fruit effect,” suggest that the sticker in fact increases record sales, arguing as Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire has: “for the most part [the sticker] might even sell more records… all you’ve got to do is tell somebody this is a no-no and then that’s what they want to go see.”

Tipper Gore at the hearing

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“Button, button, who’s got the button?”*…

If something is “fit for the back of a postage stamp,” it’s generally understood as lacking depth and nuance. A similarly sized object, however, has been upending that saying for 125 years. From political campaigns to punch lines to keepsakes, the button has packed bits of incredibly rich history into just a few inches. “It seems like a niche little object, but it really tells a very general American history,” [observed] collector and manufacturer Christen Carter

The wearable item is, in fact, an entry point into the complexities of the past.Carter recently co-authored the forthcoming book Button Power—which is available for pre-order on Bookshop—with notable dealer Ted Hake, who’s been collecting the objects for around 60 years. Through composed displays and black-and-white photos, the tome delves into the item’s history, spanning its invention in 1896 to contemporary usages. “Early on people were wearing buttons, and mostly it’s a temporary thing. It’s a moment in time,” Carter says. “They connected you to something else. One-hundred-twenty-five years ago, images weren’t as prevalent as they are now.” Button Power compiles a diverse array of notable figures, from Shirley Chisholm and the Ramones to Rube Goldberg and Muhammad Ali, each represented through the wearable item…

A medium with popularity perpetually in flux, the button has risen and fallen since its creation and notably surged in the 1960s and 1980s as it was used more widely for countercultural movements and protests. Of course, mainstream efforts from political campaigns, public figures, and large-scale events generally still sought out buttons to share their visions. Many of the slogans and broader undertakings of alternative movements that may have evaded popular narratives, however, also are preserved by the object. “It’s a people’s history, too…

More (and more nifty buttons) at “A New Book Chronicles the 125-Year History of the Button, Its Design, and Its Role in Cultural Change.”

* children’s game

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As we wear ’em with pride, we might recall that it was on this date in 1948 that Margaret Chase Smith of Maine became the first woman elected to the United States Senate without completing another senator’s term.

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Written by LW

September 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

“God has no religion”*…

Empty seats at a Catholic church in New York City, June 2014

In the early years of the twenty-first century, religion seemed to be on the rise. The collapse of both communism and the Soviet Union had left an ideological vacuum that was being filled by Orthodox Christianity in Russia and other post-Soviet states. The election in the United States of President George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian who made no secret of his piety, suggested that evangelical Christianity was rising as a political force in the country. And the 9/11 attacks directed international attention to the power of political Islam in the Muslim world.

A dozen years ago, my colleague Pippa Norris and I analyzed data on religious trends in 49 countries, including a few subnational territories such as Northern Ireland, from which survey evidence was available from 1981 to 2007 (these countries contained 60 percent of the world’s population). We did not find a universal resurgence of religion, despite claims to that effect—most high-income countries became less religious—but we did find that in 33 of the 49 countries we studied, people became more religious during those years. This was true in most former communist countries, in most developing countries, and even in a number of high-income countries. Our findings made it clear that industrialization and the spread of scientific knowledge were not causing religion to disappear, as some scholars had once assumed.

But since 2007, things have changed with surprising speed. From about 2007 to 2019, the overwhelming majority of the countries we studied—43 out of 49—became less religious. The decline in belief was not confined to high-income countries and appeared across most of the world. 

Ronald F. Inglehart, director of the World Values Survey, explains what’s behind the global decline of religion: “Giving Up on God?”

* Mahatma Gandhi

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As we contemplate the cosmic, we might recall that it was on this date in 1631 that Sweden won a major victory at the Battle of Breitenfeld against the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years’ War. Initially a conflict between the Protestant and Catholic states in the Holy Roman Empire, it gradually developed into a general European war, resulting in the deaths of over 8 million people, including 20% of the German population, making it one of the most destructive conflicts in human history.

Gustavus Adolphus at the battle of Breitenfeld

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Written by LW

September 17, 2020 at 1:01 am

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