Origins of Computer Dating (Feb, 1966)
I wonder if Gene Shalit already had that crazy mustache when he wrote this in 1966. I was looking for a picture of him to link to and I found this instead. (warning: may not be safe for work. Contains 8-bit music and pictures of Gene Shalit)
boy… girl… computer
New dating craze sweeps the campus
PRODUCED BY GENE SHALIT, PHOTOGRAPHED BY PHILLIP HARRINGTON
Out of computers, faster than the eye can blink, fly letters stacked with names of college guys and girlsâ€”taped, scanned, checked and matched. Into the mails speed the compatible pairs, into P.O. boxes at schools across the land. Eager boys grab their phones… anxious coeds wait in dorms … a thousand burrrrrrrings jar the air . . . snow-job conversations start, and yeses are exchanged: A nationwild dating spree is on. Thousands of boys and girls who’ve never met plan weekends together, for now that punch-card dating’s here, can flings be far behind? And oh, it’s so right, baby. The Great God Computer has sent the word. Fate. Destiny. Go-go-go. Call it dating, call it mating, it flashed out of the minds of Jeff Tarr (left) and Vaughn Morrill, Harvard undergraduates who plotted Operation Match, the dig-it dating system that ties up college couples with magnetic tape. The match mystique is here: In just nine months, some 100,000 collegians paid more than $300,000 to Match (and to its MIT foe, Contact) for the names of at least five compatible dates. Does it work? Nikos Tsinikas, a Yale senior, spent a New Haven weekend with his computer-Matched date, Nancy Schreiber, an English major at Smith. Result, as long date’s journey brightened into night: a bull’s-eye for cupid’s computer.
“How come you’re still single? Don’t you know any nice computers?”
Perhaps no mother has yet said that to her daughter, but don’t bet it won’t happen, because Big Matchmaker is watching you. From Boston to Berkeley, computer dates are sweeping the campus, replacing old-fashioned boy-meets-girl devices; punch bowls are out, punch cards are in.
The boys who put data in dating are Jeff Tarr and Vaughn Morrill, Harvard undergraduates. At school last winter, they and several other juniors â€”long on ingenuity but short on ingenuesâ€”devised a computer process to match boys with girls of similar characteristics. They formed a corporation (Morrill soon sold out to Tarr), called the scheme Operation Match, flooded nearby schools with personality questionnaires to be filled out, and waited for the response.
They didn’t wait long: 8,000 answer sheets piled in, each accompanied by the three-dollar fee. Of every 100 applicants, 52 were girls. Clearly, the lads weren’t the only lonely collegians in New England. As dates were made, much of the loneliness vanished, for many found that their dates were indeed compatible. Through a complex system of two-way matching, the computer does not pair a boy with his “ideal” girl unless he is also the girl’s “ideal” boy. Students were so enthusiastic about this cross-check that they not only answered the 135 questions (Examples: Is extensive sexual activity [in] preparation for marriage, part of “growing up?” Do you believe in a God who answers prayer?), they even added comments and special instructions. Yale: “Please do not fold, bend or spindle my date.” Vassar: “Where, O where is Superman?” Dartmouth: “No dogs please! Have mercy!” Harvard: “Have you any buxom blondes who like poetry?” Mount Holyoke: “None of those dancing bears from Amherst.” Williams: “This is the greatest excuse for calling up a strange girl that I’ve ever heard.” Sarah Lawrence: “Help!”
Elated, Tarr rented a middling-capacity computer for $100 an hour (“I couldn’t swing the million to buy it.”), fed in the coded punch cards (“When guys said we sent them some hot numbers, they meant it literally.”) and sped the names of computer-picked dates to students all over New England. By summer, Operation Match was attracting applications from coast to coast, the staff had grown to a dozen, and Tarr had tied up with Data Network, a Wall St. firm that provided working capital and technical assistance.
In just nine months, some 90,000 applications had been received, $270,000 grossed and the road to romance strewn with guys, girls and gaffes.
A Vassarite who was sent the names of other girls demanded $20 for defamation of character. A Radcliffe senior, getting into the spirit of things, telephoned a girl on her list and said cheerfully, “I hear you’re my ideal date.” At Stanford, a coed was matched with her roommate’s fiance. Girls get brothers. Couples going steady apply, just for reassurance. When a Pembroke College freshman was paired with her former boyfriend, she began seeing him again. “Maybe the computer knows something that I don’t know,” she said.
Not everyone gets what he expects. For some, there is an embarrassment of witches, but others find agreeable surprises. A Northwestern University junior reported: “The girl you sent me didn’t have much upstairs, but what a staircase!”
Match, now graduated to an IBM 7094, guarantees five names to each applicant, but occasionally, a response sets cupid aquiver. Amy Fiedler, 18, blue-eyed, blonde Vassar sophomore, got 112 names. There wasn’t time to date them all before the semester ended, so many called her at her home in New York. “We had the horrors here for a couple of weeks,” her mother says laughingly. “One boy applied under two different names, and he showed up at our house twice!”
Tarr acknowledges that there are goofs, but he remains carefree. “You can’t get hung up about every complaint,” says Tarr. “You’ve got to look at it existentially.”
Jeff, 5′ 7″, likes girls, dates often. “If there’s some chick I’m dying to go out with,” he says, ‘I can drop her a note in my capacity as president of Match and say, Dear Joan, You have been selected by a highly personal process called Random Sampling to be interviewed extensively by myself. . . . and Tarr breaks into ingratiating laughter.
“Some romanticists complain that we’re too commercial,” he says. “But we’re not trying to take the love out of love; we’re just trying to make it more efficient. We supply everything but the spark.”
Actually, computer dating supplies more. According to Dr. Benson R. Snyder, MIT’s chief psychiatrist, it acts as a method that society condones for introducing a girl and a boy. “A boy knows that the girl has expressed her willingness to date by the act of joining. I think that’s one of the most important things that it provides. It reduces the anxiety of the blind date; you know that the girl wants to go out with someone roughly like you.
“However,” warns Dr. Snyder, “if this is taken too seriously, and it becomes institutionalized, it could be seen as a pressure for a safe, conformistic approach. In all relationships, there is a need for the unexpected; even that which is a little anxiety-laden.”
With all the joys and ploys of computer dating, social life at sexually segregated schools in the Ivy League remains plenty anxiety-laden. At non-coed schools like Yale and Dartmouth, students lead lives of social isolation. Many are consumed by plans for weekend dates. “We try to pack a whole week into Friday and Saturday night,” says a Princeton sophomore. “If we don’t make outâ€”if we don’t sleep with the girlâ€”the whole thing’s a colossal failure.”
Comments a distinguished New York psychoanalyst: “Ivy League students are forced to behave like monk-scholars. When they’re freed on weekends, they seek emotional release. Almost all college boys are psychological adolescents, with an overpowering need for companionship, and they cannot be expected to live in seclusion. It’s no surprise that sexual relations are more and more common among college-aged boys and girls.”
“All-boy colleges create a climate for fantasy,” says Carter Wiseman, a Yale sophomore. “Girls become unreal beings, so on the weekend, you try to force the reality to fit into the fantasy you’ve created, and it wont work!”
“Getting dates down here for the weekend is a terrible waste of time,” says John de Forest of Yale. “Hotel accommodations for the girl, expenses, arrangements . . . trying to find a girl in the first place. That’s why Match is here to stay. I approve of it as a way to meet people, although I have no faith in the questionnaire’s ability to match compatible people. The machine has no way of telling whether or not the girl has pazazz!”
But, Wiseman insists, “The odds of getting along with a girl are better if she’s been screened by a computer. Say you’re interested in Renaissance art, and the machine gives you a chick who’s interested in Renaissance art, you’ve got a basis to build on. You can’t just go up to some girl on the street and say, ‘Hello, do you like Botticelli?’ ”
“In midwinter, it’s tough to meet a girl a couple of hundred miles away on any pretext whatever,” says a snowbound Dartmouth senior. “Match is a great icebreaker; the girl will at least talk to you if you call.”
Even before boys telephone their matches, most girls have a line on them through Ivy-vine sourcesâ€” tipsters at boys’ schools and upper-class girls who’ve dated extensively. Lists are passed through the dorms, where girls pencil comments next to familiar names: cool; hang up when he calls; swings; fink.
“What troubles me about all this computer jazz,” says a sophomore at Connecticut College, “is my feeling that boys don’t level when they fill in their questionnaires. I was honest with mine, but I wonder if some guys fill out theirs to see if they can get a first-nighter.”
“Boys want one kind of a girl to date, but someone quite different to marry,” says a Mount Holyoke senior. “Guys are just out for a good time, but I don’t know any girl who goes on a date without marriage crossing her mind. When college kids are together, the girl thinks: ‘I wonder what it would be like to be married to this fellow?’ and the boy thinks, ‘I wonder what it would be like to sleep with this girl? ”
“I don’t see how the questionnaire can possibly result in compatible matches,” says Ellen Robinson of Connecticut. “Guys don’t care about attitudes and interests. They all want a blonde with a great figure. But if you must fill out a questionnaire, I think the one from Contact is better.”
She gets no argument from David DeWan, 22, the MIT graduate student who owns Contact, Match’s principal rival in New England. “The Match questionnaire is unbeatable for national distribution,” he says. “But in the Northeast, I can use a vocabulary that will be more effective than it would be in the Midwest. Phrases like verbal fluency and aesthetic appreciation sell far better at schools like Princeton and Harvard.”
DeWan, a brilliant math and engineering student, does not have an organization as sprawling or yeasty as Tarr’s. In fact, he has no organization at all. A frugal man, he runs deep in the black: He has no full-time employees. His office is a room in his grandparents’ home, near Cambridge. He uses a Honeywell 200 computer at three o’clock in the morning, when the rental is low. In one distribution of questionnaires, he drew 11,000 responses at four dollars each.
DeWan has been going steady with a girl at Wellesley, so when he organized Contact, they put themselves to the test. Sure enough, the computer matched them. But the computer also matched her with an Amherst boy, who won her away. “It was very sad,” says DeWan, “but it proved my system works. It found her a more compatible guy.”
“I think that’s a riot,” says Dr. Snyder, who invited DeWan to discuss the computer project at a meeting of the MIT psychiatric staff. “I was a little bit appalled by its 1984 overtones, but was much less concerned after we talked. Contact provides students with a chance to get over the initial hurdle of knowing that they’re not going to be immediately rejected. At their age, it’s often difficult to make the kind of small talk that’s so important at the initial stages of a relationship. My guess is that computer-matched people are more able to explore comfortably their interests. I think it’s a useful social mechanism, but it would be misused if boys used it merely to make a connection for a sexual good time.”
“I don’t know that Match and Contact can really work,” gainsays Dr. Morris S. Davis, astronomer and director of the Yale Computer Center. “Until body chemistry can be inputed into the computer to stimulate the actual reactions of two persons, I have my doubts concerning the efficacy of the method.”
Dr. Snyder agrees that the computer can’t predict compatibilty. “But it’s not just chemistry,” he insists. “It’s because you can’t program something as complicated as the whole cluster of feelings and associations that surround a boy’s notion of what a girl ought to be. What a computer can do is increase the probability of a satisfactory relationship by removing incompatible persons.”
To test this theory, Chritopher Walker, a senior at Yale, organized a dance for 200 college boys and girls, who were selected at random, matched by computer and tested before and after the dance. They spent time with their matches, then with dates they “picked up” during the dance’s designated free period. Preliminary findings: Most had most fun with their “pickups.” “If it turns out that way,” says Walker, a psychology student who is a great admirer of Match, “it will be because a dance is a one-night stand, where the only thing that counts is physical attraction.”
Not everyone has faith in computers. At the University of Wisconsin, two enterprising graduate students, Glenn Weisfeld and Michael Rappaport, have a service called SECSâ€”Scientific Evaluation of Compatibility Service. They offer a short questionnaire, charge one dollar, provide one date, and somehow, it works. Says Weisfeld, “We had our proudest moment when we were congratulated for making SECS a four-letter word.”
Just the same, Tarr feels the future belongs to the computer. He’s working on campus installations of hundreds of special typewriters, all linked to a centralized “mother computer.” A boy, typing his requirements, will receive in seconds the name of a compatible girl on his campus who’s free that night. Tarr is also organizing a travel service. On deck: a transatlantic cruise by an ocean liner packed with compatible couples. (Rejected name: Ship of Fools. Scene: night. The deck awash with moonlight. In the shadows, a boy sings, “Come To Me, My Correlated Baby.” Below decks, in the salon, a girl murmurs, “How do I love thee? Let me count the punch cards.”) Tarr already has outposts in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, will soon go international, providing students summer dates all over Europe.
Since collegians must fulfill each other’s requirements, the questionnaire is designed to produce the profile of the applicant and the profile of the applicant’s ideal date. Boys have discovered that there is more to getting the girl of their daydreams than ordering a blonde, intelligent, wealthy, sexually experienced wench. They must also try to guess what kind of boy such a girl would request, then describe themselves to conform to her data. The future suggests itself: A boy answers the questions artfully. A girl does too. The computer whirs. They receive each other’s name. Breathlessly, they make a date. They meet. They stop short. There they are: Plain Jane and So-So-Sol. Two liars. But they are, after all, exactly alike, and they have been matched. It is the computer’s moment of triumph.