Arse Elektronika: the future of sex?

by Johannes Grenzfurthner

(a write-up of Johannes presentation to Session 12, Performing Sex)

According to a study by Simon Smith, more than 800 items were registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office as sex toys between 1840 and 1997. Among them was a condom with a built-in
computer chip that can play music. Progress?

From the depiction of a vulva in a cave painting to the newest internet porno, technology and sexuality have always been closely linked. No one can predict what the future will bring, but history indicates that sex will continue to play an essential role in technological development.

The porno effect accompanies every new technological development. Immediately after producing his famous bible, Gutenberg used his press to print erotica. Photography was utilized just as quickly. In 1874 the London police discovered 130,000 pornographic photos in the course of a single house search. The introduction of cinematic technology also confirmed the close relationship between pornography
and technological innovation: in 1896 a pornographic film was shown publicly for the first time, two years after the premiere of the first films of any interest to the general public. Since then, more
pornographic films than nonpornographic films have been produced.

That in 1977 the first video cassettes to appear on the market featured pornographic content should come as no surprise. The development of the camcorder and the instamatic camera made it possible for anyone so inclined to produce porno in privacy at home.

The fact that the first affordable Polaroid model was named “The Swinger” seems to indicate that the industry was well aware of this possible use.

All of these facts could be relegated to the status of curiosities were it not for the important role that pornography has played in the development of new technologies. New technologies are quick to appeal
to pornography consumers, and thus these customers represent a profitable market segment for the suppliers of new products and services. Without telephone sex, a sector that has been yielding
enormous profits since the 1980s, providers would have had no incentive to upgrade the communicational infrastructure. And of course one should not forget the internet, which is notorious for
being flooded with pornography. Porno sites were the first to use technologies like audio and video streaming. They were also a driving force behind the spread of high-speed internet connections and made
necessary the development of better data systems. Additionally, porno sites have promoted the development of new cultural technologies like (in)formal partnering, outsourcing, upselling and site tracking.

Today a new technology’s success with porno consumers is a dependable indicator of the product’s overall market potential. Currently, all factors show that high-tech developments like virtual reality owe a
great deal of their success to the need for further sexual stimulation. One could cite the example provided by the science-fiction concept of a full-body interface designed to produce sexual stimulation. But it isn’t science fiction anymore.

Is it going too far to assume that research in nanotechnology and genetic engineering will be influenced by our sexual needs. The surgical modification of sexual organs is no longer something very unusual.
The question is not whether these technologies alter humanity, but how they do so.

The genre of the “fantastic” is especially well suited to the investigation of the touchy area of sexuality and pornography: actual and assumed developments are frequently depicted positively and
approvingly, but just as often with dystopian admonishment. Here the classic, and continuingly valid, themes of modernism represent a clear link between the two aspects: questions of science, research
and technologization are of interest, as is the complex surrounding urbanism, artificiality and control (or the loss of control).

Depictions of the future, irregardless of the form they take, always address the present as well. Imaginations of the fantastic and the nightmarish give rise to a thematic overlapping of the exotic, the
alienating and, of course, the pornographic/sexual as well.

Scottish SF author Iain Banks created a fictitious group-civilisation called “Culture” in his eponymous narrative. The vast majority of humanoid people in the “Culture” are born with greatly altered glands housed within their central nervous systems, who secrete – on command – mood- and sensory-appreciation-altering compounds into the person’s bloodstream. Additionally many inhabitants have subtly altered reproductive organs – and control over the associated nerves – to enhance sexual pleasure. Ovulation is at will in the female, and a fetus up to a certain stage may be re-absorbed, aborted, or held at a
static point in its development; again, as willed. Also, a viral change from one sex into the other, is possible. And there is a convention that each person should give birth to one child in their
lives. It may sound strange, but Banks states that a society in which it is so easy to change sex will rapidly find out if it is treating one gender better than the other. Pressure for change within society
would presumably build up until some form of sexual equality and hence numerical parity will be established.

Does this set-up sound too futuristic? Too utopian? Too bizarre?

We may not forget that mankind is a sexual and tool-using species.

And that’s why our annual conference Arse Elektronika deals with sex, technology and the future. As bio-hacking, sexually enhanced bodies, genetic utopias and plethora of gender have long been the focus of
literature, science fiction and, increasingly, pornography, this year will see us explore the possibilities that fictional and authentic bodies have to offer. Our world is already way more bizarre than our ancestors could have ever imagined. But it may not be bizarre enough.

“Bizarre enough for what?” — you might ask. Bizarre enough to subvert the heterosexist matrix that is underlying our world and that we should hack and overcome for some quite pressing reasons within
the next century.

Don’t you think, replicants?

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