Higher Ed Has a Silicon Valley Problem

In 1959, a company called Simulmatics opened its doors. Founded by Ed Greenfield, a back-slapping Madison Avenue Mad Man, Simulmatics did political consulting and data analytics. In 1960 it claimed credit for getting John F. Kennedy elected president. Eleven years later, it went bankrupt. In her new book, If Then, Jill Lepore argues that the Simulmatics story is our reality: We are trapped in “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.” As Lepore puts it in her subtitle, Simulmatics “invented the future.”

The future that Simulmatics built — and the data-drenched way of thinking it championed — was largely the brainchild of academics. Greenfield hired leaders in the then-new field of behavioral science, and the company became a magnet for brilliant, idealistic, and opportunistic scholars besotted by the idea that data, computers, and predictive algorithms could change minds, influence behavior, and forecast the future. This belief reached a tragic crescendo during the war in Vietnam — Simulmatics had a branch office in Saigon — but the ambition lives on in Silicon Valley, our politics, and our universities.

I recently spoke with Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker, about how algorithms and data came to supersede art and philosophy, why higher ed has a Silicon Valley problem, and how a midcentury political theorist at Berkeley became the face of Ballantine Ale.

If Then is your 14th book, but the first to be published during a pandemic.

Let’s hope it’s the last.

In a way, the timing is apt. You track the rise of predictive models of human behavior, and we’ve all spent the past six months scrutinizing models of infection rates and deaths.

Historian and author Jill Lepore in the stacks of the Widener Library at Harvard University,  in Cambridge, Mass., on September 5, 2018.

Kayana Szymczak, The New York Times, Redux

“On a lot of campuses, the word ‘data’ mashed together with the word ‘science’ has a sort of alchemical magic,” says Jill Lepore. “It mints gold!”

Yeah, but this one’s an evergreen. It reminds me of 2012, when I had an assignment from The New Yorker to write a history of the gun-rights debate. It took me about six weeks. In that time, there was a shooting at a high school outside of Cleveland, and George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Florida. When the piece came out, people would say to me, “It’s so well-timed. How did you know this would be just the right moment? And I thought, You could take any six-week period and the piece would have felt timely. Not that we have pandemics with great frequency, but we do often find ourselves uncannily attached to the mystique of prediction.

I don’t have a Luddite view of the collection and analysis of data. It’s far too broad a category of knowledge and analysis for anyone to reject. But it’s important to think about how certain kinds of data collection and analysis — personal data, gathered for the purpose of the for-profit prediction of human behavior — came to be so unquestionable.

Let’s talk about how it came to be. If Then is full of memorable characters. Two of them, in particular: Eugene Burdick and Ithiel de Sola Pool. Who was Eugene Burdick?

He was a self-taught California beach boy who had a storied stint in the Navy. Then he went to Stanford and was a Rhodes Scholar. He also wanted to be a writer and started writing short stories, including for The New Yorker. As a young professor, a political theorist at the University of California at Berkeley, he decided to write political thrillers. His 1956 book, The Ninth Wave, is a novel about election manipulation by way of computers plus demagoguery; he wrote it while he was studying voting behavior and the then-new quantitative methods in political science.

Burdick was such a dynamic, charismatic, sexy guy that he became the spokesman for Ballantine Ale. The TV ads depicted Burdick, an award-winning scuba diver, swimming around looking for the perfect ale, searching for “a manlier brew.”

In 1956, Burdick was hired by Ed Greenfield, who ran an ad agency in New York that also did political consulting, to conduct research for the Adlai Stevenson campaign. Around that time, Burdick also met Ithiel de Sola Pool, a brilliant numbers guy, and together they worked on a project for Greenfield to help Stevenson win the California Democratic primary Then they collaborated as scholars. For a time, they were on the same path.

How they diverge is particularly interesting. Pool joins the faculty at MIT and becomes a true believer in data science. Burdick, on the other hand, undergoes a crisis of conscience.

Burdick was an inaugural fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences, now part of Stanford. He joined the seminar on mathematics because he wanted to understand the new science of voting behavior. And he came to see this work as somewhat inconsistent with democracy. If you build machines that are constantly dividing voters into smaller and smaller microdemographic entities in order to target messages to those voters, you end up undermining a sense of the public good, even if that’s not your intention. Burdick thought a lot about that. He wrote not one but two novels about that problem, The Ninth Wave, in 1956, and The 480, in 1964, a novel about Simulmatics. There aren’t many political theorists out there writing best-selling novels that are adapted into award-winning Hollywood movies. He’s a type of public intellectual who doesn’t exist anymore. He died very young, in 1965, or else I think we’d still know about him.

It’s strange to see those Ballantine Ale ads and consider a time when academics were product pitchmen. The only recent corollary I can think of is Steven Pinker as a shoe model. What academic today could be the face of a “manlier brew”?

I want to be the face of a manlier brew!

For a lot of academics, even then, this was unseemly. Especially after the publication of the 1958 novel The Ugly American, Burdick became an international celebrity. He started hanging out in Hollywood with Marlon Brando (who starred in the film version of the book). People thought it was tacky and a violation of academic propriety. Burdick didn’t care.

If your field has the word “data” in it, you get to pass go and collect $2 million, no questions asked.

Burdick and Pool were part of a quantitative turn in the study of man: numbers, graphs, and simulations superseded poetry, painting, and philosophy. Was this the most significant intellectual consequence of the Cold War?

Yes, that’s absolutely fair to say; it’s at least top five. There is a tremendously rich and provocative body of scholarship on this turn in American intellectual life.

Let’s close the loop on Pool, a champion of the idea that the social sciences were the “new humanities of the 20th century.” He carried that belief into the jungles of Vietnam.

He was a gentle and gentlemanly character. As chair of the political-science department at MIT in the 1960s, he hired women into tenure-track positions — and it was not an institution or field where that was done. A lot of the work Simulmatics did early on was about insisting that public-opinion surveys include the views of Black voters. In many ways, Pool, for a time, was considerably more progressive than a lot of the midcentury liberals around him.

But he was also an impassioned anti-Communist crusader, and he had a sprawling research agenda that used cutting-edge tools to detect and deter Communist revolutions. Pool moved Simulmatics in the direction of doing counterinsurgency work for the Kennedy administration in Latin America, and then for the Johnson administration, especially Robert McNamara’s Department of Defense, in Vietnam. Simulmatics opened an office in Saigon in 1965. Pool, I believe, considered psychological warfare to be a kinder, gentler, more humane way to defeat Communism. But the work was extremely controversial, and Pool became the object of student rage.

Pool wrote an essay in 1966 in which he called the computational behavioral sciences “the new humanities of the twentieth century” and argued for the necessity of social scientists’ working for the government. For thousands of years, he wrote, statesmen had relied on religion, philosophy, and language — the realm we think of as the humanities. That age had passed, Pool argued, because the new humanities are the behavioral sciences, which are quantitative and predictive and reliable and aided by powerful computers. That is what statesmen need today, he claimed then, and academics who work in this field have an obligation to help statesmen make better decisions.

This set off something of a firestorm. In 1968, at MIT, Pool debated Noam Chomsky. The following year, Chomsky published an essay in The New York Review of Books, The Menace of Liberal Scholarship, a rebuttal of the idea that the social sciences are the new humanities and a fierce argument against scholars’ working for the government, for the war. Chomsky was quite personal in his attack on Pool. When MIT students began protesting the war, they protested their own faculty. There was chemical research at MIT, there was all kinds of weapons research at MIT, and there was psychological-warfare research at MIT. Students wanted that stuff off campus. Those protests, of course, mark a turning point not only in the history of MIT but in the history of higher education.

But the focus of the ire, mostly because they read his name in The New York Review of Books, was Ithiel de Sola Pool. Protesters held a mock trial of him for war crimes. One of the legacies of Simulmatics is the way it alerted students to faculty conflicts of interest.

This got very ugly. Molotov cocktails were thrown at Pool’s house in Cambridge.

In 1968-69, Students for a Democratic Society was becoming extremely militant and violent. There were bombings, and threatened bombings, all over the country, including of university buildings, and not just ROTC buildings. One of Pool’s children told me about being home alone after school one day and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who also worked for Simulmatics, and lived nearby, picked him up because it wasn’t safe for him to be at home.

My understanding is that Pool remains a founding-father figure at the MIT Media Lab.

I’m not sure the people at the Media Lab have much of a sense of the Media Lab’s own history. That’s not what they do. But yes, as a consequence of the student protests, there were big ethical rule changes on campus, stuff you just could no longer do in an existing academic department. Pool died in 1984, just before the Media Lab was founded, but it was founded on ideas that align very closely with his own. It stands alone. If you’re chair of an academic department at most places, you can’t raise money for your department. All the money goes through the development office. But the Media Lab — and this was among the many problems with the lab’s accepting vast funds from Jeffrey Epstein — raises its own money.

In If Then you write: “Much of university life by the 2010s followed the model of the Media Lab, collapsing the boundaries between corporate commissions, academic inquiry, and hucksterism.”

This won’t be news to readers of The Chronicle. No end of people have pointed out the long-term distorting effect of money from the federal government going primarily to areas of pressing national-security concern — the physical and chemical sciences for weapons development, the psychological sciences for psychological-warfare development, economics for various other projects. Where does that leave every other part of the university? You end up with no civics, very little arts, no foreign languages. If the only way to get anything done at a university is to raise money from a corporation, we’re not going to know what we need to know about the world and the human condition. We’re going to know what we need to know to please corporate donors.

So it’s worth thinking about, say, the place of data science in academic life. In the 1950s, there was a joke: What is behavioral science? Anything the Ford Foundation will fund. So what is data science? We all use data in one form or another. You can’t make any easy generalizations about “data science,” because it embraces so much and the term says so little. But on a lot of campuses, the word “data” mashed together with the word “science” has a sort of alchemical magic. It mints gold!

A lot of where the money comes from for data-science work concerns me. People who work in data-science programs and call themselves data scientists have done, of course — and I can’t stress this enough — tremendous, wonderful, long-lasting research. We all benefit from that work. But there is a lot of dross, and it’s where you’d go if you were, not to put too fine a point on it, a huckster. Meanwhile, other parts of colleges and universities are starving, and the culture as a whole is in a state of seemingly bottomless anguish about the human condition and has a real scarcity of tools for seeking comfort, enlightenment, pleasure, delight, and humility.

This investment of the federal government in academic research is a crucial part of the story you tell. In 1968, for instance, $173.8 million of MIT’s $214-million budget came from the federal government, and of that, $111 million came from the Department of Defense.

I should disclose that my husband works for MIT. I really admire MIT as an institution. Also, I’m not an antimilitary person; I started college on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. And then, of course, MIT handles this stuff altogether differently now. But it was a mess in the ‘60s, an ethical quagmire. Those problems had to do with weapons research and behavioral science and the military. Today the ethical problems have to do with corporate money and with data science. But what universities seem to be doing now is to say that if your field has the word “data” in it, you get to pass go and collect $2 million, no questions asked.

MIT aside, the Cold War and the government largess that flowed from it did alter the evolution of knowledge, right?

Harvard granted me permission to open the records of a faculty committee that had been set up to review a proposal to join MIT on a project proposed by Pool: the Cambridge Project. The committee had solicited letters of concern and support, and they were extraordinarily moving. Think what it was like to be on a college campus in 1969. This was a decade that began with Greensboro College students staging sit-ins, proceeded to Berkeley with the Free Speech Movement and then antiwar protests across the country, followed by the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State. And here’s a proposal for money to build a giant computer to do social-science research, and the first possible use will be at the Department of Defense. Graduate students in particular were like, You’ve got to be kidding me. We can’t do this. Why should we trust these people? Our university cannot be involved in this.

We have not had that sort of ethical conversation about Silicon Valley. A few years ago, Harvard gave an honorary degree to Mark Zuckerberg. This is a person whose company has all but destroyed journalism and utterly undermined our system of political representation. In whose name are we endorsing this stuff?

I’m haunted by a former Facebook guy who said, “The best minds of my generation have been trying to convince people how to click on shit.” I try to teach people history and literature. But at the end of the day, are we mainly producing people who go out into the world and try to convince people to click on shit?

Simulmatics opened in 1959, a time when intellectual prestige was largely bestowed on literary types — this was the era of Lionel Trilling, Richard Hofstadter, Reinhold Niebuhr. The same was true on campuses, where humanities departments were dominant. Now, as we’ve discussed, the humanities suffer from a deficit of prestige and funding. Can we trace a line from Simulmatics to the decline of the humanities?

There are a lot of jeremiads about the decline of the humanities. I once had a graduate student who did a review essay of all of them and pointed out something that maybe should have been obvious but that I’d never noticed before: They’re all written by white men who are English professors.

The mourning has a certain sniffiness to it that I find a little uncomfortable. Some of it is about There goes the neighborhood. And, as I’ve said before, I think we humanists have for a very long time been shooting ourselves in the feet. If you go around saying nothing is true, there is no meaning, everything is a signifier, pretty soon no one wants to hear from you anymore. Postmodernism, however intellectually fruitful, has been a problem for how the public perceives the humanities. So I don’t think humanists have adequately reckoned with our role in our own demise. But, like so many things, that’s easier said than done.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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