July 12, 2012

Sex: The First and Last Temptation of High Tech

THERE EXIST A PLETHORA of quotes about how things change but remain the same, so I'll spare you. It just seemed to me that two decades in high tech closed in my own little mind this afternoon as I was clicking through some of my back pages. In 1993, Wired was about to be launched and I was asked to write something for the first issue. The article, Wired 1.01: This Is A Naked Lady is found below, somewhat updated as is my habit over time. But what is really interesting, at least to me, is how little updating it needed. What was more interesting, at least to me, was this curious conjunction of Wired's current cover to an article from its first issue that closes with a meditation on the probable rise of robots for other, more wetware uses than just spot welding SUVs.

wired1.jpg

It all goes to show that while high tech may be tempting, we'll not see the end of that temptation in our lifetime. Then again, why would we want to?

UPDATE: I'm not the only one out there with memories of the "Naked Lady:"

James @ SciScoop does as well.

"I remember her from back when I subscribed to The Source!!! I accessed it with a diskless TRS-80 Model III and an external Lynx 300 baud modem. Man, those were the days. I upgraded my TRS-80 myself from 16K to 64K (that's K-as-in-kilo, kids!!!) RAM and never did get the RF shield back on right, there was always TV static when I fired it up after that. "

Ah, there's RAM and then there's Mem'ries...

"This is a Naked Lady" -- 1993-2004

Back in the dawn of online when a service called The Source was still in flower and 1200 baud was blazing,, a woman I used to know, would logon to that service as "This is a naked lady."

She wasn't naked of course, except in the minds of hundreds of young and not so young males on The Source, who sent her unremitting streams of detailed wet dreams night after night, hoping to engage her in online exchanges known as "hot chat"; a way of engaging in a mutual fantasy often found only at 900 services. In return, "The Naked Lady" egged them on with leading questions larded with copious amounts of double entendre. She also kept an open file on her computer where she kept copies of all her "conquests".

When we discussed this during the time in 1984 she spent writing a book on information services for me (Confessions of an Infomaniac Houghton Mifflin, Boston), she initially put it down to "just fooling around on the wires."

"Its just a hobby," she said. "Maybe I'll get some dates out of it. Some of these guys have very creative and interesting fantasy lives."

At the start, she was a rather mousy person, favored gray clothing of a conservative cut, and was the paragon of shy and retiring womanhood. Looking at her on the street, you'd never think that her online persona was one that excited the libidos of dozens of men every night.

But as the months online progressed and she became (through the dint of her blazing typing speed) the kind of person that could keep a dozen or more online sessions of hot chat going at a time, a strange transformation came over her. She got a trendy haircut, and had it streaked. Her clothing tastes went from Peck and Peck to tight skirts slit up to the thigh with tight sweaters to match. She began to regale me with descriptions of her expanding lingerie collection, and ask my advice on condoms and other personal items of nocturnal intent.

Her speech became bawdier and her jokes naughtier. Her choice of lipstick changed from Chapstick to "Passionfruit". She started to resemble an aging cheerleader gone to seed. After a while, it dawned on me that I was witnessing the total transformation of her character. In short, she was becoming her online personality; lewd, bawdy, sexy, a man-eater.

After the book was delivered, I left town. The last I saw of her, she was using her online conversations to get dates and favors from the men foolish enough to fall into her clutches.

The bait was an old bait....sex without strings attached, sex without love, sex as a fantasy pure and simple. An ancient profession whose costs always exceed expectations and whose pleasures invariably disappoint. The "fishing tackle", however, was way new at the time: online telecommunications. The "new twist" was that you didn't have to look your best and there was nothing to clean up afterward.

In the two decades that have passed since then there have been a number of other new wrinkles added to the text-based fantasy machine of online sex stories and erotic conversations that consumes an unknown and unknowable portion of the global telecommunications bandwidth. Groups have formed to represent all sexual persuasions. On the Internet for awhile there was a group called alt.sex.bondage.golden.showers.sheep. Most people at the time of its creation thought it was a joke. Alas, it was not, but neither was it's membership limited to Greek shepherds with cable modems.

You can send graphics from here to there and everywhere. NASA sends graphics of the Space Shuttle. Singles groups of all persuasions send photos and state preferences. And, yes, a large amount of traffic in these images is erotic in content. Sounds are starting to be sent. Movies, short clips called Quicktime, are being "netcast". All harbingers of ever more raunchy things to come. Because, for all the ho-ha that grows every louder by the day in our over-connected and soon to be entirely wireless world, the web reveals everything we are and that includes the fact that when it comes to sex, there really is no bottom to the human soul.

It is as if all the incredible advances in computing and networking technology over the past decades boils down to the ability to ship images of turgid members and sweating bodies stuffed with bodaciousness everywhere and anywhere at anytime. Looking at this, it is little wonder that, whenever this is discovered (And someone somewhere makes the discovery about twice a month), that a vast hue and cry resounds over the nets to root out the offending material and burn those that promulgated it. It is especially ghastly to the Guardians of Public Decency that this new technology, the flower of American Research and Development, supported by tax dollars, should have one bit of a byte devoted to shipping the image of an overweight Princess Leia in a leather body-suit brandishing a whip while stoking her beard. High tech is being perverted to low ends, they cry.

But it was always so.

There is absolutely nothing whatever new about the prurient relationship between technology and sexuality.

Sex, as we know, is a heat-seeking missile that forever seeks out the newest medium for its transmission. William Burroughs, a man who understands the dark side of sexuality better than most, sees it as a virus that always is on the hunt for a new host; a virus that always gets there first. There is something hard wired into the human psyche that simply and persistently likes to think about sex and see sexual images. Different genders and psyches have different tastes, but the overall desire seems about as persistent over the centuries as the lust for bread and burgers. To see how this works, lets look back in time to when other media were hot.

We could go back to Neolithic times when sculpture and cave painting were young. We could pick up the prehistoric sculptures of females with pendulous breasts and very wide hips -- a theme found today in pornographic magazines that specialize in women of generous endowment. We could run our flashlight over cave paintings of males whose members seem to exceed the length of their legs. A theme echoed in magazines with alliterative titles such as "Hung,Horny,Humpy and Hongray Honchos Rode Hard and Put Away Wet." We could travel forward in time to naughty frescoes in Pompeii, or across continents to where large stones resembling humongous erections have for centuries been major destinations of pilgrims in India, or to the vine-choked couples of the Black Pagoda at Ankor Wat where a Mardi Gras of stone erotic activity has been on display for centuries.

We could move up a little closer to our time and culture and remind people that movable type not only made the Gutenberg Bible possible, but it made cheap broadsheets of what can only be called "real-smut-in-perfect-English" available to the masses for the first time. You see, printing not only made it possible to extend the word of God to the educated classes, it also extended the monsters of the id to them as well. It is well to remember that one of the first novels, Clarissa, dealt with the seduction and deflowering of a young girl by a reprobate. Hot stuff for the times although it wouldn't make it past the slush pile in today's publishing companies.

Printing also made for the cheap reproduction and broad distribution of erotic images as well. Woodcuts at first, then etchings, then lithographs, and with the coming of chromo-lithography in the 19th century, color got added. All was not Currier and Ives in the 19th century, bogus themes from the walls of Pompeii were also very popular.

Depending on the tenor of the era, the trade in these images was more or less sub-rosa; always there as background noise in the communications mix.

"Psst, got any French postcards, my good man?"

"Come up and see my etchings sometime."

"Lord,check out this deck of playing cards! That's what I call a one- eyed Jack, if ya know what I mean. Nudge. Nudge. Wink. Wink."

All these widely distributed images were carefully drawn and portrayed, in various positions and acts, to excite the libido of many and make a tidy living for a few.

And then along came photography, a new medium and one that, until recently, did more to advance the democratic nature of erotic images than all the previous media combined. When you joined photography with photo-lithography, you created the first medium that could be used by many. It suddenly became both economic and possible for lots of people to enact and record their fantasies and then to reproduce them for sale to many others. Without putting too fine a point on it, the Stroke Book was born.

Implicit within these early black and white tomes featuring a lot of naked people with Lone Ranger masks demonstrating the ways in which human's could entwine their limbs and conceal large members at the same time, were the vast nascent publishing empires of Playboy, Penthouse, and Swedish Erotica. Still, the point was made that the new medium of photo-lithography was, if not exactly a people's media, at least ripe for the entrepreneur with a vision about what people really wanted to see when they looked at pictures. It may have made them outlaws, but they were at the outset more like Pretty Boy Floyd than Al Capone. It wasn't to last, alas, but what does?

The point here is that all media, when they are new or become cheap enough, are used by outlaws to broadcast unpopular images or ideas. The same printing press that could run off copies of Fanny Hill could also be used to print up copies of The Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, The Communist Manifesto and other highly unpopular screeds. When a medium is created the first order of business seems to be the use of it to advance religious, political, or sexual notions and desires.

Indeed all media, if they are to get a jump start in the market and become successful, have to address themselves to mass drives -- those things we hold in common as human needs: Food -- Gourmet Magazine and The French Chef; Shelter --- Better Homes and Gardens, and This Old House; Fashion -- Vogue and GQ and 90210; Knowing the News of the Week, Money.......TIME, LIFE, and FORTUNE.

But of all these, the old stand-by SEX is the drive where it is easiest for the consumer to know if the medium is effective. SEX is like a horror movie or novel in this way. We are talking real basic instincts here. You are either hot/scared, or you are disgusted/turned off. This is why so many people who are excited by the idea of eliminating pornography from the earth have recently fallen back on the saying "I can't define what pornography is, but I know it when I see it." They're right. You can't define it, you feel it. Alas, since everyone feels it in a slightly different way and no one can define it, it becomes very dangerous to a free society to start proscribing it. We can only get about as far as proscribing pornography that involves children, since within limits that is pretty much self-evident, and doesn't have many public advocates outside of the woe-begone ragtag assemblage of NAMBLA.

And now we have come to the "digital age" when all information and images can be digitized; when all bits are equal but some are hotter than others. We are in a land and an age where late-night cable can make a sailor blush. An endless Edgecity strip mall where for every family-style Blockbuster video outlet, you have three Mom and Pop Vid Shops whose prosperity depends on a continuing turnover of "Debby Does Everything In Sight." We are a collection of urban monads where dialing 900 and seven other digits can put you in intimate contact with pre-op transsexuals in wet-suits who will talk to you as long as the credit limit on your MasterCard stays in the black.

It is little wonder that the religious right in this nation is fit to be tied, and has discovered that there is no end to people who would be happy to oblige. SEX has come rocketing out of the closet and into the everyone's terminal. In addition, the sex industry has transmogrified itself from the province of a few large companies and individuals into a massive cottage industry.

It used to be that, at the very least, you had to drive to the local (or not so local) video shop or "adult" bookstore to refresh your collection of sexual fantasies. Now, you don't have to leave home. Just dial it up and pump it in. What's more, you can make it yourself if that's your pleasure and transmit it to others. It is a distinct harbinger of things to come that better "Needless to say..." letters appear online than in Penthouse Forum, sexual images in binary form form one of the heaviest data streams on the Internet, and that "amateur" erotic home videos are the new hot category in the porn shops. People in the digital age are not only reaching out to touch everyone, they are reaching out to touch everyone everywhere.

Since it depends on basic stimuli that is widely known and understood, erotica is the easiest kind of material to produce. Quality isn't the primary criteria. Quality isn't even the point. Arousal is the point, pure and simple. Everything else is just wrapping paper. "Art" is something you add if you are a classy kind of person and don't want to admit you just like to get off. If you can pick up a Polaroid, run a Camcorder, write a reasonably intelligible sentence on a word processor and can set up a BBS, you too can be in the erotica business. Talent has very, very little to do with it. Desire and access is all in this game. This makes the barrier to entry very low, and has a similar effect on the quality of the material.

You have to know a lot to run a good conference on law or even gardening. You have to study. You have to know the territory. But everyone thinks they know how to present sex. To do it well takes talent, true. But to just do it so that it "works" for most people, takes very little ability at all.

The other irritating thing about sex is that, like hunger, it is never satisfied. It recurs in the human psyche with numbing regularity. In addition, it is one of the most commonly stimulated, but never satisfied, drives by the approved above-ground media (Is that woman in the Calvin Klein ads coming up from a stint of oral sex, or is she just surfacing in the swimming pool?) Mature, corporate media can tease. New, outlaw media have to deliver the orgasm. They can't get by on production values, because they have none.

The good news for the eternal guardians of morality is that as any new medium matures, the subject matter expands and the sexual percentage of material tends to become marginalized, even if it is growing in volume. With the VCR the ability to own x-rated tapes through the mails (so that no one would know these "private things") drove the market for a number of years. Now, it is a much lower percentage of the total video market although still sizable. Same thing happened with 900 numbers.

Computer networks are going through the same process that has characterized new mediums since the days of cave painting. First hot chat, then whole BBS systems and networks....perfect for sexual material since it is private and yet somehow communal at the same time. .GIFS came along just in time to revitalize a group that had grown jaded on Cindy's Torment. And now we'll be seeing the advent of QuickTime movies transmitted over the Internet and giving us the best of Marilyn Chambers or a clone thereof.

The author, Howard Rheingold, made some waves in the early 90s with his vision of a network that will actually hook some sort of tactile feedback devices onto our bodies so that the fantasies don't have to be so damned cerebral. He called this vision "dildonics" and had been dining out on the concept for years. It's arrived and Howard has long since moved on to making mad monkey mindlove with young mob-bloggers. Soon you'll have virtual reality and the ability to construct your own erotic consort for work, play, or simple experimentation. On and on it will go. Robotics will in time deliver household servants and sex slaves. Then of course the robots will have a movement for equality and liberation. Every new technology matched by a use for it by the libido of the young, the restless, or the bored. Until, of course, the users and the technology outgrow it.

I saw that "Naked Lady" about three months ago. I asked her if she was still up to the same old games of online sex. "Are you kidding?" she told me. "I'm a consultant on computer security these days. Besides, I have a kid now. I don't want that kind of material in my home."

Posted by Vanderleun at July 12, 2012 1:39 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Well, Meagan McCain is around to take her place, nowadays.

Posted by: Joan of Argghh at July 12, 2012 5:56 PM

The Source, don't forget F.I.D.O. and Compuserve. I had various early computers including a Tandy TRS-80 Model 100, early laptop, and then later I had an IBM PC Convertible that weighed the same as a case of beer and had 2 1.44Mb disk drives. An employer received an original IBM PC with 2 540kb floppy drives. I believe I looked into upgrading to a 10 MB hard drive and it was a few thousand dollars.

These kids and their fancy push-button telephones and color TV, they live like kings,, I tell ya. Live like kings.

Posted by: Scott M at July 13, 2012 2:06 AM

"The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between this profusion of matter and the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness."

André Malraux, Les Noyers de l'Altenburg
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/André_Malraux

Posted by: MizzE at July 16, 2012 3:21 AM

It wasn't all fun and money - do you know how hard it is to tag yet ANOTHER photo of boobs in an interesting way for that Mustang Wildcat! software? TITS Another hot amateur...blah blah...

The thrill was gone. Long gone. And kids today are spoiled rotten wankers.

Posted by: LauraB at July 17, 2012 12:07 PM