In 1964, the novelist Eugene Burdick published The 480. The best-selling book described, as Burdick wrote in his preface, “people who work with slide rules and calculating machines and computers which can retain an almost infinite number of bits of information as well as sort, categorize and reproduce this information at the press of a button.”
The title refers to four hundred and eighty categories of voters, defined by demographic characteristics, created by the Simulmatics Corp., a real company, as a way of targeting appeals to small subgroups. The novel’s drama centers on data manipulation’s role in lifting a dark-horse candidate toward the Republican presidential nomination.
We’re told of five different campaign mailings directed “to five carefully selected groups that shared only one quality: they were likely to turn out to vote and they had a special grievance.” I suppose that’s two qualities, but you get Burdick’s point. And, yes, the author’s engaging tale was based on reality: John F. Kennedy used Simulmatics in his 1960 campaign.
The 480 speaks to how long Americans have worried about the manipulation of our political decisions by tech magicians with access to mounds of information.
The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal takes our paranoia to a whole new level. But paranoia, implying psychologically unhealthy delusions, is the wrong word. There is nothing disordered about the outrage created by the invasion of an estimated 50 million Facebook accounts for the ultimate benefit of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
The upshot is that private companies that traffic in the enormous amounts of personal data we voluntarily give them are not living up to their obligations both to each of us as individuals and to the common good.
Data mining, as Burdick’s book shows, is not new. But today’s social media companies do it more extensively and more efficiently. Consider an imperfect but instructive analogy. Any campaign can acquire your listed land-line number. But no campaign is permitted access to your hopes, fears, worries, passions or day-to-day business by way of a phone tap. Facebook’s accumulated information may not be quite like a tap. But the company sure knows a whole lot about you.