My father watched computers conquer the world, and he did his part to aid in their conquest. He watched punch cards give way to magnetic tape, in fact helped to switch over; he wrote programs for researchers; he did data preparation for Alan Lomax, weighing and assigning variables to data so it could be more easily manipulated, a task that required a great deal of training, even, perhaps, craftsmanship. He learned FORTRAN and became an expert in finding errors in the programs researchers wrote for themselves. He stayed up late underground in Columbia University’s Computer Center, below Uris Hall, playing with computers. He thought it was a joke, or else a piece of true idiocy, when he heard about plans for “computer text manipulation.” Why would you use the enormous computational power of a computer to write?
To hear him tell it, computers in the sixties were something akin to classical music, like a secret club, but an open secret that anyone could learn about if he or she wanted—a haven for interesting, bizarre people, when “nerds were just nerds,” as he put it, “not stars.” The discipline attracted strange characters, many who wanted, like my father, to be free: free time was the watchword of the era. He read articles in self-serious magazines about how people would have so much free time in the future they wouldn’t know what to do with it, and that all this free time would become a grave social problem.