When Sex Drives Technological Innovation


Unless you’ve never been online, visited a video-rental store, watched cable TV, or turned on the set in a modern hotel, you know how much technology has changed the landscape of sex in recent decades. Or at least the landscape of pornography. The information-technology revolution has not stopped at the bedroom door but burst through it, deluging us with X-rated cyber cams and DVDs and chat rooms and phone-call services. But something else has also happened: Not only have new technologies spurred innovation in pornography, but the opposite has occurred. Sex has become one of the forces shaping information technology.

Every new information technology since the printing press has spawned pornography. By the early 150Os, half a century after Gutenberg, an Italian named Pietro Aretino was making his living in the business. Almost as soon as there were photographs, there were dirty photographs, and on a very large scale: A London pornographer busted in 1874 possessed 130,000 of them. And as soon as there were movies, there were dirty movies. But not until the second half of the twentieth century and the general relaxation of taboos about pornography did the relationship between it and technology become a two-way street.

That relationship has been the focus of a study by the historian of technology Jonathan Coopersmith, an associate professor at Texas A&M. His paper “Pornography, Technology and Progress,” published in a scholarly journal called Icon , reveals the wide variety of ways sex has first encouraged the acceptance of new technologies and later actually been part of the further development of those technologies.

This symbiosis had its first stirrings after World War II, when the introauction of 8mm cameras made home moviemaking easy and affordable for the first time. A funny thing happened: Camera stores quietly began stocking stag films to rent. These, according to a government report on obscenity, “served as a catalyst for the rental or purchase of movie projectors, screens, cameras, and other equipment.” Porn was, for the first time, demonstrably helping sell a new technology.

Over the following decades, of course, porn came into the open, with Hugh Hefner introducing Playboy in 1953 and the Supreme Court ruling that nothing could be considered obscene unless it was “utterly without redeeming social importance” in 1957. By 1972, when Deep Throat was released, hardcore was virtually mainstream.

Thus, as cable TV moved into people’s homes, formerly illicit fare moved in with it. But not until the arrival of the videocassette recorder and the video camera was that fare a prime force behind technology’s spread. The first VCRs, in the late 1970s, were not only very expensive but made in two competing formats, VHS and Betamax. Who would buy them? Pornography, Coopersmith shows, gave people not only a motive for purchasing the machines but also, at first, the only recorded tapes to use with them. Sexually explicit videotapes hit the stores in 1977, a year before regular Hollywood releases, and over the next few years, more than half of all recorded tapes sold were X-rated. By the mid-1980s, that share had dropped to under 25 percent.

This phenomenon would repeat itself with later technologies. Porn consumers would help both establish a market and build familiarity and expertise with the new technology. Then a bigger, more mainstream market would follow, whether for VHS movies, DVDs, or the World Wide Web, and the pioneering role of sex would diminish.

When camcorders were coming in, in 1978, one business reporter noted that their manufacturers “like to think that [the cameras] will be used to enable people to watch more cultural and sports events. They are only kidding themselves. It is an open secret that the biggest market is [visual sex].” That of course is far from true today; the camcorder market has long since moved beyond that very limited base to reach practically every family with children in America. The same thing happened with Minitel, the French attempt to invent the World Wide Web before the real thing came along. In the early years, between a third and a half of all Minitel traffic was sexual; the product’s use expanded, and the importance of those pathbreakers declined.

Repeatedly, porn has helped establish a market for new technologies. Then the mainstream follows.

On the Internet, pornographers have done more than just get there first- though they have certainly done that, especially in terms of online retailing. They have even pioneered technologies. They have been behind some of the systems that are used to verify online financial transactions. They- especially Playboy —have invested in the development of digital watermarking technology to prevent the unauthorized use of online images. And they have led the way in Internet videoconferencing—a technology sure to have more and more importance in the business world, where telephone Conference calls are now utterly routine. Coopersmith reports on an outfit called Virtual Dreams plowing half its $700,000-a-month profit into improving its interactive technology.