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Jill Lepore's If Then
Credit: Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Jill Lepore on the ethically challenged birth of the computer age

In the early days of modern computers the Simulmatics Corporation, an until now mostly forgotten company, manipulated technology to mine data, affect the news, and influence voter and consumer preferences. Sound familiar? The tech titans of today have formidable ancestors.

As historian Jill Lepore reports, the men in charge of this endeavor brought a Mad Men-style swagger to the burgeoning digital universe. In other words, they drank a lot and ruined marriages adeptly while working the numbers game. Among other boasts, the company “claimed credit for having gotten John F. Kennedy elected president.” Lepore’s new book is If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. The story of the rise and fall of Simulmatics sheds light on how the digital machinery that now runs the world was first employed with less than ethical means.

Jill Lepore is a professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. She was interviewed by fellow historian Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington, and a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times. O’Mara is the author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.

Town Hall Seattle presented this event on September 18, the day Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died.

Please note: This recording contains unedited language of an adult nature.