When Sex Drives Technological Innovation

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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.

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.