Porn, the Low-Slung Engine of Progress
JOHN TIERNEY/The New York Times, January 9, 1994
John Tierney, a fellow at the Freedom Forum Center for Media Studies at Columbia University, is on leave from The New York Times, where he covered the cultural impact of technologies.
TO BE LINGUISTICALLY FASHIONABLE IN Silicon Valley, you must be able to speak knowingly about the "killer app" -- the killer application for a new technology, the function that makes a gadget appealing. A killer app can be something like the spreadsheet software that induced businesses to buy the first desktop computers. It can be something for the home, like the video games that popularized living-room computers. And, as crowds at trade shows have discovered in the past year, it can be something for the libido.
The sensation at recent computer expositions has been a new group of booths surrounded by black curtains. Inside are high-tech peep shows: interactive videos on CD-ROM featuring naked Penthouse models and hard-core porn actresses who respond to commands from a keyboard. The computer industry has professed shock -- the X-rated material has been banned from one trade show and from most computer magazines' advertising pages -- but in retrospect it all seems quite predictable.
In the history of communications technology, sex seems to be the most enduring killer app. For reasons both obvious and mysterious -- explanations variously cite the work of Newton, Freud, and Beavis and Butt-head -- sex has had a peculiarly creative impact on communications. Sometimes the erotic has been a force driving technological innovation; virtually always, from Stone Age sculpture to computer bulletin boards, it has been one of the first uses for a new medium.
"We want to humanize the products we invent, and sex is so fluid that we can find a use for it in any new situation," said Nicholson Baker, the author of "Vox," a recent novel about telephone sex. "It's hard work adopting a new technology, and we need some sort of compulsion to do it, so I suppose sex serves some purpose there. But we'd do it even if there were no purpose. We're always looking for exotic new ways of doing the same old things. New technologies are strange and exciting, and one wants romance to be strange and exciting."
The erotic technological impulse dates back at least to some of the earliest works of art, the so-called Venus figurines of women with exaggerated breasts and buttocks, which were made by firing clay 27,000 years ago -- 15 millenniums before ceramics technology was used for anything utilitarian like pots. When subsequent artists discovered the medium of cave walls, they produced work like the rock carving that archeologists have titled "Nude Woman," etched more than 12,000 years ago at La Magdelaine Cave in France.
The oldest known literature, recorded by the Sumerians in cuneiform on clay tablets, includes poetry celebrating the sweetness of a woman's lips and vulva. In one love song, a Sumerian newlywed instructs her husband how to put his hand on a "goodly place," and she says, "Let me caress you. My precious caress is more savory than honey." This was written nearly 4,000 years before the release of a CD-ROM with a Penthouse model licking her lips as she says, "Let's get interactive."
When Gutenberg's press brought the written word to the masses in the late 1400's, it didn't take long for printers to discover that the masses wanted more than Bibles. A book of erotic engravings depicting lovemaking positions, published in 1524 and suppressed by the Pope, inspired a collection of sonnets by the first modern pornographer, an Italian named Aretino.
Successors followed with works like "La Puttana Errante" ("The Errant Prostitute"), in 1531, and a famously innovative book, "L'Ecole des Filles" ("The Girls' School"), published in France in 1655. Its dialogues, in which an older woman instructs a girl on sexual pleasures, titillated the English diarist Samuel Pepys, who recorded a coded entry about buying a plain-bound copy of "that idle, roguish book," using it to masturbate and then burning it so it would not "disgrace" his bookshelf.
Literary historians have credited these early pornographers with helping to develop techniques -- dialogue, scene-setting, the epistolary format -- that eventually led to the novel, a genre quickly adopted for pornography. "Pamela," often considered the first English novel, was published in 1740, and it was followed just eight years later by the first pornographic one, "Fanny Hill."
Some of the earliest daguerreotypes, in the mid-1800's, were pornographic. One of the first movies, made by Thomas Edison, was a bit of realism called "The Kiss," and a pornographic film industry was thriving by the 1920's. Government regulation kept sex off radio and television airwaves, but eventually pornographers helped establish new audio and visual technologies for getting into the home.
They played a key role in popularizing the videocassette recorder. In 1978 and 1979, when fewer than 1 percent of American homes had VCR's and the major movie studios were reluctant to try the new technology, more than 75 percent of the videocassettes sold were pornographic. And when cable systems began allowing public-access programming, pornographers immediately brought forth shows like "Midnight Blue."
Ever since the Bell telephone system was dismantled in the early 1980's, the purveyors of phone sex have been the leading innovators in the marketing and technology of pay-per-call services. They are already anticipating videophone sex, perhaps within two years.
Now that cable-television and telephone companies are rushing to link American homes to fiber-optic networks, it is probably worth recalling what happened in the early 1980's when a prototype of the information highway was built in France. The French system, which provided millions of homes with terminals linked to a computer network, is described by Howard Rheingold in his recent book, "The Virtual Community."
"The French Government hired academics to do all kinds of studies anticipating the wholesome things people would do with the terminals, like check classified ads or railroad schedules," said Mr. Rheingold, a journalist based in San Francisco. "To their utter surprise, what the French really wanted to do was talk dirty. When the network started up, the first summer they spent such an amazing amount of time typing X-rated messages to one another that they overloaded the system and brought the network down."
Consumers Union Men Want Gadgets, Men Want Porn
Why is the erotic so closely linked to new technologies? The simplest explanation is that sex has always been one of those topics that interested communicating humans. But it is not just another topic.
"Pornography is always unsatisfied," said Walter Kendrick, author of the 1987 book "The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture" and a professor of English at Fordham University. "It's always a substitute for the contact between two bodies, so there's a drive behind it that doesn't exist in other genres.
"Pornographers have been the most inventive and resourceful users of whatever medium comes along because they and their audience have always wanted innovations," he added. "Pornographers are excluded from the mainstream channels, so they look around for something new, and the audience has a desire to try any innovation that gives them greater realism or immediacy."
Another reason for audience enthusiasm has to do with demographics: Men are the chief consumers of pornography, and men are also the main enthusiasts for new communications gadgets. This means, for instance, that the markets for the first home-movie projectors or CD-ROM drives have conveniently overlapped with the market for pornography.
Is this just a coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. The feisty academic Camille Paglia has argued in her book "Sexual Personae" that developments in art and technology are related to the male sex drive: "Phallic aggression and projection are intrinsic to Western conceptualization. Arrow, eye, gun, cinema: the blazing light beam of the movie projector is our modern path of Apollonian transcendence. Cinema is the culmination of the obsessive, mechanistic male drive in Western culture."
George Basalla, the author of "The Evolution of Technology," does not wax quite so heroically on the subject of men's fondness for new technologies. "I have seen arguments that males play with gadgets because they've played with their penises, and that tools are kind of an extension of the penis," said Dr. Basalla, who teaches the history of technology at the University of Delaware.
"It's an interesting argument, partly reasonable," he continued. "I've taught courses about the automobile, and it's fascinating to see the different responses. The male response is erotic: They like to inspect the automobile, they like to lift the hood, they like to do things to it, they want it to respond to them. Women don't relate to cars that way at all. They come up to me after class and say: 'What's going on here? Why are the boys so excited about these things?' "
Lynn Hunt, the editor of a recent book of essays, "The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800," suggests another way of looking at the technology-pornography link: Not only do some men see technology in sexual terms, they see sex in technological terms.
"Pornography attaches itself to a new technological medium partly because it's a genre that's very interested in technological means," said Dr. Hunt, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. "One of the famous things that goes on in early pornography is to say: Love is not about emotion, love is about sexual desire. It reduces sex to a set of technologies that arouse desire, satisfy desire, create new desires. Pornography is about cataloguing all the variations, treating human bodies as interchangeable parts in machines."
Dr. Hunt's book includes an essay by Margaret Jacobs linking the rise of modern pornography to Newtonian physics. Pornographers reflected this scientific revolution by reducing love to anonymous encounters in a "space occupied only by bodies in motion" that "collide just like the atoms of the natural philosophers," writes Dr. Jacobs, a professor of history at the New School for Social Research. The Cyberfuture Virtual Sex, Virtually Alone
If sex is always at the technological frontier, then today's true pioneers of communications are to be found at Interotica, the CD-ROM company responsible for "The Interactive Adventures of Seymore Butts." The company consists of recent college graduates who work in shorts and sandals in an office near the Santa Monica beach in California. They got into the CD-ROM business intending to produce loftier material.
"I was hoping to do a title about the Amazon rain forest -- something interactive that would enable you to navigate through it as you learned about the ecology," said Lawrence Miller, a founder of Interotica. But as he and his partners wondered how well the rain forest would sell, they realized that there was a more attractive ecological niche to be filled, and their computers have been busy ever since mechanizing sex.
One afternoon, for instance, a computer in one corner of the office was dutifully converting a hard-core pornographic film into digital data for a compact disk. On the left side of the screen, labeled "Input," was an image of an energetic couple on a bed. Each twitch of these bodies in motion was being processed by the computer and displayed, several seconds later, on the right side of the screen above the label, "Output." No one in the company paid any attention.
Such digitalizing makes possible products like the "Seymore Butts" film, which is shot from the point of view of a narrator wandering around Los Angeles. It begins with him spotting a young woman in shorts. He goes up to her and introduces himself, and then the action stops with her face frozen on the screen.
"Geez, she's beautiful," the narrator says. "For the first time in my life, I'm feeling a little tongue-tied. Come on, man, help me out. What should I say?"
The viewer sees a list of choices on the screen: Slink away; Ask her out to dinner; Invite her to join him in a hot tub. If the viewer selects the hot tub, the action resumes with her slapping the camera. If he chooses dinner and makes a series of correct choices later in the film, he is rewarded with sex, seen in explicit detail from the narrator's point of view.
Similar illusions of interactivity are offered on other CD-ROM titles like Penthouse's "Virtual Photo Shoot," featuring video footage of models posing. The footage changes instantly in response to the viewer, who is supposedly a Penthouse photographer and can choose among commands like "Take Bra Off" or "Suck Finger" or "Touch Self."
The basic appeal of these products was probably best expressed by MTV's Butt-head, when he observed to his companion Beavis: "It would be cool if girls just did what you wanted 'em to." It is a philosophy that has offended many women and prompted a few to produce alternatives.
The most visible is Lisa Palac, editor of what is billed as "the only erotic magazine for women and men that combines the two most popular and powerful subjects of our time: sex and technology." The magazine, founded in 1992 in San Francisco, is called Future Sex.
"Most women," Ms. Palac said, "are reacting to computer pornography by saying, 'Oh, great, here's another field that's going to be contaminated by these sexist views of women.' I take the opposite view. The link between sex and new technology is always going to be there, and I think women should get involved. We need to create our own erotic titles that appeal to women."
Future Sex offers old-fashioned erotic photos and text, reviews current computer erotica and speculates about the future. On the cover of one issue, next to photographs of a man and a woman in joint sexual ecstasy while strapped into separate virtual-reality equipment (visors, headphones, assorted mechanical devices), was the headline: "Strap In, Tweak Out, Turn On!"
At the moment, there are only a few crude approximations of this virtual-reality technology. Ms. Palac has produced an audio-only version, a CD called "Cyborgasm" featuring sexual encounters you listen to on headphones with your eyes closed. You can hear, for instance, a dominatrix whispering and snapping her whip as she circles you -- and whatever you think of the dominatrix, you can at least admire the technology that produces such realistic sounds moving around you.
Pornographers hope to start adding other sensations when homes are wired into the fiber-optic information highway. Pay-per-call videophone sex is an obvious application. It's also easy to imagine video versions of the "hot chat" that is popular with computer on-line services, which currently allow just about any kind of sexual fetishist to carry on live conversations with soul mates around the country by typing comments on a computer screen.
True, many of the people now anonymously typing erotic comments might not want to be able to see one another on their videophones or television screens. (It is generally assumed that a lot of cross-gender role-playing is going on among the typists.) But with future virtual-reality technology, they could presumably alter their screen appearance. They could project screen images -- of Daniel Day-Lewis, say, or Julia Roberts -- that would mimic every move and noise they made in their living rooms.
Eventually viewers might be able to indulge other senses. "Virtual Reality," another book by Mr. Rheingold, describes how you might one day slip on 3-D glasses, headphones and a lightweight bodysuit with a mesh of tiny tactile detectors coupled to stimulators. The gear is wired to powerful computers that record your movements and cause you to experience sounds, sights and the sensation of touching or being touched by any kind of texture -- virtual wool, virtual satin, virtual skin.
Then you have the computer call up one -- or more -- people wearing similar gear. "You see a lifelike but totally artificial representation of your body and your partner's," Mr. Rheingold writes. "Your partners are able to move independently in cyberspace, and your representations are able to touch each other, even though your physical bodies might be continents apart."
It is impossible to know if this communications technology will ever be feasible. But it is fairly easy to guess what people would do once they put those suits on. Mr. Rheingold refers to it as teledildonics. Others prefer to call it cybersex or virtual sex. By any name, it sounds like the ultimate killer app.