‘If Then’ Review: Big Data’s Baby Steps

Source: The Wall Street Journal (behind paywall).

Today’s WSJ has a review that almost makes me want to buy the book it describes. The book recounts the history of an early computer company, started in 1959 and bankrupt 11 years later.

“The idea behind the Simulmatics Corp. was to gather data at scale, use computers to interpret it and thereby predict the future…

“The ghost of Simulmatics haunts all of today’s belated government efforts to rein back the great data-crunching companies of Facebook, Google and Amazon and of those even closer to politics and national security, like Palantir.

“‘Simulmatics failed,’ Ms. Lepore writes, ‘but not before its scientists built a very early version of the machine in which humanity would in the early twenty-first century find itself trapped, a machine that applies the science of psychological warfare to the affairs of ordinary life, a machine that manipulates opinion, exploits attention, commodifies information, divides voters, fractures communities, alienates individuals, and undermines democracy. . . . Long before the age of quarantine and social distancing, Simulmatics helped atomize the world.'”

I am intrigued by the reference to “the science of psychological warfare.” Here is a venerable, mainstream media outlet making a claim about big tech that one normally hears only on the fringes of the Internet.

Good! I say. The science of psychological warfare needs to become a common discussion. It is not like famous intellectuals of the last century never mentioned the topic; Edward Bernays and Noam Chomsky come to mind. It is not like major movies never explored the subject; think the Manchurian Candidate or A Face in the Crowd. But, for some reason, the presence of psychological warfare in our own daily lives is today unmentionable.

One thought on “‘If Then’ Review: Big Data’s Baby Steps

  1. “Psychological warfare” has been going on since Genghis Kahn. The tactic of destroying a town and killing all but one who was sent ahead to warn the next place of the horrors. Compliance was the norm.

    Advertising is all about PW. it is not about comparing the merits of your product versus others‘. It is all about creating a desire for something where there was none before.

    Big data is about more efficient targeting. FB’s brilliant tactic was the same as slot machines. Random and instant gratification feeds the human brain as efficiently as those of rats pushing a lever for rewards.

    Q-anon slips in tantalizing tidbits of clues to keep folks enthralled while at the same time providing cover for pernicious conspiracies. We humans are so easily distracted, entertained and often convinced.


    Liked by 1 person

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