When Sex Drives Technological Innovation

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In the world of telecommunications, the driving force of sex has been, if anything, more surprising. As in other developing media, it was at first just a matter of encouraging sales. For instance, as the historian David Morton notes, prostitutes were the principal home users of the expensive early answering machines of the 1950s. (“They say they’re actresses,” he quotes one retailer as saying, “but I don’t know any actresses who could plunk down $800 cash for the newest and the best.”) But by the 1990s, the sex industry was actually building the telephone infrastructure for some nations.

Here’s how that happened. Commercial phone sex was born in 1982 when the Federal Communications Commission, in a deregulatory move, ruled that the phone company could no longer have a monopoly on recorded messages. That meant the phone company could no longer keep recorded messages clean, and once there were dirty recorded messages there were bound to be dirty live ones too. Local opposition to dial-up sex followed, and local phone-sex numbers gave way to long-distance and 800 ones and then international ones. By 1996, an estimated 1.5 percent of all international phone calls were pornographic. A two-billion-dollar-a-year business had grown up.

Most of those calls are routed through remote countries, some so remote that most people have never heard of them, like Niue and São Tomé. They are places that desperately need the money the calls generate. Their national phone companies charge a very high toll for the calls, split the proceeds with the businesses involved, and then forward the calls via leased lines to some other far-off location, most typically Toronto, where banks of multilingual operators do the actual talking.

Niue is a South Pacific island that now has 10,000 phone lines—4 for every man, woman, and child in the land. Guyana gets as much as 40 percent of its gross domestic product from incoming phone calls. According to Frederick S. Lane III, a lawyer specializing in Internet matters who has written a book titled Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age , “the willingness of consumers in the United States and western Europe to pay high per-minute charges for simple access to phone sex has had a direct impact on the ability of small nations to rebuild (or in some cases build) the telecommunications infrastructure they need to attract other types of business.”

Why should sex, of all things, be one of the fuels of the information revolution? I asked Coopersmith that. “It’s simple,” he said. “It happens because like all technology throughout history, information technology is motivated simply by what people want. It’s never some amorphous inhuman thing. It’s what people do to improve and ease their lives, as they see it. Technology after technology, one of the first things people do is use it for sex. Another is, they use it for religion.”

So will sex continue to shape technologies? “Absolutely. Its role may just often be hidden from view, as much of it has been here. How our technologies develop and how we use them are often invisible. Pornography technologies are a little bit like sanitation systems. We don’t think about them until something happens to make us say, ‘Whoa. What about that? Hide it again!’ We don’t want to see it, but we don’t want to be without it either.”

Such is human nature, illustrating the basic truth that our technologies, like our artistic creations, are and always have been nothing more or less than plain expressions of our human nature. The effects of technology may change, but the cause remains the same.