There are many books that I admire and love that I never for a moment dream I could have written. Right now I’m reading an old favorite, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, to my wife, and as I do so I am every minute aware that I could not write this book if you gave me a million years in which to do so.
But every now and then I encounter an admirable book that I wish I had written, that (if I squint just right) I see that I could have written. I had that experience a few years ago with Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland, and I’m having it again right now as I read Jill Lepore’s If Then. What a magnificent narrative. What a brilliant evocation of a moment in American history that is in one sense long gone and in another sense a complete anticipation of our own moment. Oh, the envy! (Especially since if I had written the book it wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is.)
We are afflicted by our ignorance of history in multiple ways, and one of my great themes for the past few years has been the damage that our presentism does to our ability to make political and moral judgments. It damages us in multiple ways. One of them, and this is the theme of my book Breaking Bread with the Dead, is that it makes us agitated and angry. When we, day by day and hour by hour, turn a direhose of distortion and misinformation directly into our own faces, we lose the ability to make measured judgments. We lash out against those we perceive to be our enemies and celebrate with an equally unreasonable passion those we deem to be our allies. We lack the tranquility and the “personal density” needed to make wise and balanced judgments about our fellow citizens and about the challenges we face.
But there is another and still simpler problem with our presentism: we have no idea whether we have been through anything like what we are currently going through. Some years ago I wrote about how comprehensively the great moral panic of the 1980s – the belief held by tens of millions of Americans that the childcare centers of America were run by Satan worshipers who sexually abused their charges – has been flushed down the memory hole. In this case, I think the amnesia has happened because a true reckoning with the situation would tell us so much about ourselves that we don’t want to know. It would teach us how credulous we are, and how when faced with lurid stories we lose our ability to make the most elementary factual and evidentiary discriminations. But of course our studied refusal to remember that particular event simply makes us more vulnerable to such panics today, especially given our unprecedentedly widespread self-induced exposure to misinformation.
Even more serious, perhaps, is our ignorance – in this case not so obviously motivated but the product rather of casual neglect — of the violent upheavals that rocked this nation in the 1960s and 1970s. Politicians and pastors and podcasters and bloggers can confidently assert that we are experiencing unprecedented levels of social mistrust and unrest, having conveniently allowed themselves to remain ignorant of what this country was like fifty years ago. (And let’s leave aside the Civil War altogether, since that happened in a prehistoric era.) Rick Perlstein is very good on this point, as I noted in this post.
All of this brings us back to Jill Lepore’s tale of the rise and fall of a company called Simulmatics, and the rise and rise and rise, in the subsequent half-century, of what Simulmatics was created to bring into being. Everything that our current boosters of digital technology claim for their machines was claimed by their predecessors sixty years ago. The worries that we currently have about the power of technocratic overlords began to be uttered in congressional hearings and in the pages of magazines and newspapers fifty years ago. Postwar technophilia, Cold War terror, technological solutionism, racial unrest, counterculture liberationism, and free-market libertarianism — these are the key ingredients of the mixture in which our current moment has been brewed.
Let me wrap up this post with three quotations from If Then that deserve a great deal of reflection. The first comes from early in the book:
The Cold War altered the history of knowledge by distorting the aims and ends of American universities. This began in 1947, with the passage of the National Security Act, which established the Joint Chiefs of Staff, created the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, and turned the War Department into what would soon be called the Department of Defense, on the back of the belief that defending the nation’s security required massive, unprecedented military spending in peacetime. The Defense Department’s research and development budget skyrocketed. Most of that money went to research universities — the modern research university was built by the federal government — and the rest went to think tanks, including RAND, the institute of the future. There would be new planes, new bombs, and new missiles. And there would be new tools of psychological warfare: the behavioral science of mass communications.
The second quotation describes the influence of Ithiel de Sola Pool — perhaps the central figure in If Then, one of the inventors of behavioral data science and a man dedicated to using that data to fight the Cold War, win elections, predict and forestall race riots by black people, and end communism in Vietnam — on that hero of the counterculture Stewart Brand:
Few people read Pool’s words more avidly than Stewart Brand. “With each passing year the value of this 1983 book becomes more evident,” he wrote. Pool died at the age of sixty-six in the Orwellian year of 1984, the year Apple launched its first Macintosh, the year MIT was establishing a new lab, the Media Lab. Two years later, Brand moved to Cambridge to take a job at the Media Lab, a six-story, $45 million building designed by I. M. Pei and named after Jerome Wiesner, a building that represented nothing so much as a newer version of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Brand didn’t so much conduct research at the Media Lab as promote its agenda, as in his best-selling 1987 book, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. The entire book, Brand said, bore the influence of Ithiel de Sola Pool, especially his Technologies of Freedom. “His book was the single most helpful text in preparing the book you’re reading and the one I would most recommend for following up issues raised here,” Brand wrote. “His interpretations of what’s really going on with the new communications technologies are the best in print.” Brand cited Pool’s work on page after page after page, treating him as the Media Lab’s founding father, which he was.
And finally: One of Lepore’s recurrent themes is the fervent commitment of the Simulmatics crew to a worldview in which nothing in the past matters, and that all we need is to study the Now in order to predict and control the Future:
Behavioral data science presented itself as if it had sprung out of nowhere or as if, like Athena, it had sprung from the head of Zeus. The method Ed Greenfield dubbed “simulmatics” in 1959 was rebranded a half century later as “predictive analytics,” a field with a market size of $4.6 billion in 2017, expected to grow to $12.4 billion by 2022. It was as if Simulmatics’ scientists, first called the “What-If Men” in 1961, had never existed, as if they represented not the past but the future. “Data without what-if modeling may be the database community’s past,” according to a 2011 journal article, “but data with what-if modeling must be its future.” A 2018 encyclopedia defined “what-if analysis” as “a data-intensive simulation,” describing it as “a relatively recent discipline.” What if, what if, what if: What if the future forgets its past?
Which of course it has. Which of course it must, else it loses its raison d’être. Thus the people who most desperately need to read Lepore’s book almost certainly never will. It’s hard to imagine a better case for the distinctive intellectual disciplines of the humanities than the one Lepore made just by writing If Then. But how to get people to confront that case who are debarred by their core convictions from taking it seriously, from even considering it?