Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate

In The Myth of the Machine, the historian Lewis Mumford warned that computers were sucking away our freedom and destroying “life-enhancing values.” An injunction on punch cards of the period—“Do not fold, spindle or mutilate”—became an ironic phrase of the antiwar Left.

– Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs

“Punch-card-blue”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This phrase “Do not fold, spindle or mutilate” has an interesting history in itself. It is all at once a symbol of technological progress, bureaucratic repression, and 60s counterculture. But most importantly, it symbolizes the ambivalence the Hippies had towards technology.

Punch cards were used for a variety of purposes. Computer programs were written on them. The government sent out Social Security checks as punch cards. And of course, Berkeley would use them for student enrollment.

One of the problems with punch cards is that they are very fragile. A computer program at the time was a box of punch cards you would carry around with you. A professor once told me how he lost days’ worth of work to a kid whizzing by him on a bike. The box flew in the air with cards flying all over the place and the ordering was lost, thus rendering them useless.

This fragility even created a full-blown Constitutional crisis in the 2000 election. The ambiguity of a “Hanging chad” would be a huge point of contention during the recount of that election. The infamous “Butterfly ballot” was a source of many voters voting for the wrong candidate.

If you folded a punch card, it would jam the machine. Some people would put them on a spindle (you know those upright spikes that restaurants spear tickets though?), which would ruin the punch card. And any software engineer who has spent days debugging a tricky bug can surely understand the desire to mutilate punch cards in a fit of rage.

Thus, “Do not Fold Spindle or Mutilate”. I have seen reference to the idea that this phrase was printed on punch cards, but I have not seen a confirmed image of a punch card that actually contains such a statement. There is a Chrysler training punch card that contains the phrase “Do not Bend or Mutilate”. Thus, it seems as though the phrase was most important because of its cultural meaning.

The Free Speech Movement

From the W.E.B. DuBois Club newsletter, Bancroft Library, Berkeley. Courtesy Bancroft Library; Sourced from Silvio Lorusso

Regardless of its origin, the phrase would become a rallying cry. The punch card would eventually become a symbol of alienation and bureaucracy. According to Lubar, the first time we see this connection is in the context of the Free Speech Movement.

From Counterculture to Cyberculture recounts librarian Hal Draper’s “IBM syndrome”. He described how to a student “the mass university of today is an overpowering, over-towering, impersonal, alien machine in which he is nothing but a cog going through pre-programmed motions”.

Mario Savio, one of the leaders of FSM, once wrote that the University was a machine that turned human students into punch cards with degrees. To Savio and the FSM, the punchcard was the perfect symbol of the connection between the University, corporate interests, and the military machine.

Taking it back

Dusty Miller wearing a punch card with the word “STRIKE”. Photo by Helen Nestor.

At the same time, the punch card is a symbol of activists’ willingness to co-opt technology for their own usage. Activists started carrying around signs saying “I am a student at the University of California. Please do not fold, spindle or mutilate me.” I am unable to find an image of such a sign, but I’ve seen reference to it in a couple of sources.

Students began wearing punch cards with “FSM” or “STRIKE” printed on them. Some students began to slip punch cards laced with obscenities, which yielded very interesting student rolls.

The phrase went beyond the Counterculture of the 60s. According to Lubar, there was a poster for Earth Day that showed a picture of the earth with a caption that said “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate”.


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