In the fall of 1964, on a visit to the World’s Fair, in Queens, Lewis Altfest, a twenty-five-year-old accountant, came upon an open-air display called the Parker Pen Pavilion, where a giant computer clicked and whirred at the job of selecting foreign pen pals for curious pavilion visitors. Within a year, more than five thousand subscribers had signed on. It would invite dozens of matched couples to singles parties, knowing that people might be more comfortable in a group setting. They wound up in the pages of the New York subscriber.
Each client paid five dollars and answered more than a hundred multiple-choice questions. (A previous installment had been about a singles bar—Maxwell’s Plum, on the Upper East Side, one of the first that so-called “respectable” single women could patronize on their own.) She had planned to interview Altfest, but he was out of the office, and she ended up talking to Ross.
One section asked subjects to choose from a list of “dislikes”: “1. The batteries died on her tape recorder, so they made a date to finish the interview later that week, which turned into dinner for two. Looking back now, he says that he considered computer dating to be little more than a gimmick and a fad.
The demolition of the Third Avenue Elevated subway line set off a building boom and a white-collar influx, most notably of young educated women who suddenly found themselves free of family, opprobrium, and, thanks to birth control, the problem of sexual consequence.
transferred the answers onto a computer punch card and fed the card into an I. was restricted to the Upper East Side, an early sexual-revolution testing ground.
Women were asked to look at a trio of sketches of men in various settings, and to say where they’d prefer to find their ideal man: in camp chopping wood, in a studio painting a canvas, or in a garage working a pillar drill. 1400 Series computer, which then spit out your matches: five blue cards, if you were a woman, or five pink ones, if you were a man.
Men were asked to rank drawings of women’s hair styles: a back-combed updo, a Patty Duke bob.
Another question, in a section called “Philosophy of Life Values,” read, “Had I the ability I would most like to do the work of (choose two): (1) Schweitzer. (3) Picasso.” Some of the questions were gender-specific.
They started seeing each other, and two years afterward they were married. The process of selecting and securing a partner, whether for conceiving and rearing children, or for enhancing one’s socioeconomic standing, or for attempting motel-room acrobatics, or merely for finding companionship in a cold and lonely universe, is as consequential as it can be inefficient or irresolute.
Lives hang in the balance, and yet we have typically relied for our choices on happenstance—offhand referrals, late nights at the office, or the dream of meeting cute.
Online dating sites, whatever their more mercenary motives, draw on the premise that there has got to be a better way.
They approach the primeval mystery of human attraction with a systematic and almost Promethean hand.