Book reviews / Non fiction

Book review: If Then

I think this was another Xmas present that I asked for, as it looked pretty interesting. I like data! This is a book about a data company in the 1960s. Ooooo!

What the book describes is the Simulmatics company, which got its life by trying to model the behaviour of election in the 1960 election for the Democrats. But basically, it wasn’t a very good company, partly due to people and partly down to it basically being too early for its own good.

Unfortunately, it only started getting good at the end, when all the different threads wound up. I think part of the problem is that most of the people in the book are, for the most part, awful men. The either treat their wives terribly, cheat on their wives, leave their wives or taunt their wives after leaving their wives. They just aren’t very nice. But for about 50% of the book we just get chapter after chapter introducing all these shitty men. So it makes it difficult to want to read another chapter, where we see the inevitable consequence of patriarchy fucking up some poor women’s lives.

Then we take a hard turn from trying to pedal their wares to media companies and the government to working in Vietnam during the Vietnam war! Apparently doing really shitty research, over and over and over again, and yet still getting money. Finally in the late 1960s is when everything gets good, which is when the company falls apart.

The other problem I had with the book was the pessimistic view of data in general. I thought the chapters dealing with the fall out of trying to use social science data in the Vietnam war interesting. It was kind of hilarious given the uproar over the use of government having data, when in reality we all live in such a data rich environment. If only they had decided to go ahead with that giant government database, we may have had all these discussions about standards then rather than having to retrofit them now!

The hyperbolic response then seems very strange 60 years on is all. But inevitably it seems the author takes a pessimistic view of the development of data – in some ways. Yes, of course use it for cancer treatment, but social networks, the horror. I guess I think it’s difficult to have progress without getting some things wrong, and to write a book about a data company and then have that conclusion is very odd to me.

The thing I liked about the book, but slightly skeptical of, is all the neat associations and parallels with today. There was A LOT of stuff that happened 1968, which reminds me of everything feeling so overwhelming now. As well a the polarisation of media (and politics) that was one of the predications of one of the men from Simulmatics. Everything seemed perfectly pitched to reflect today, which is why I am skeptical, but maybe that’s just because I don’t want to be depressed by it. I guess living through history is always stressful.

Also the paragraphs of descriptions of events (like anti-war protests) were just a big overbearing. More like a novel than a non-fiction book. And it was always things we’d probably seen in 100 different films before anyway, so I’m not sure the point of writing an entire paragraph of it was really necessary.

Anyway, interesting, but not…that interesting.

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