The internet has served Eros from the beginning.
Once upon a time, the men who commanded the most powerful army in the history of the world decided they were going to create a giant, invisible apparatus for sex. They did not know the apparatus was for sex. They thought they were building a computer network that would help win wars in the age of the atom bomb. They thought it would prop up the dominoes of capitalism against the winds of communism. They gave teams of researchers vast sums of money. The researchers made the network work.
Then a funny thing happened.
The researchers started using the network to talk about their feelings.
The researchers had many feelings, especially the male researchers—and they were mostly male.
They felt lonely.
They felt randy.
They wondered if anyone was listening.
Having grown up in a society that told men that they shouldn’t feel at all, the computer network offered the perfect emotional prosthesis. It let them be human. Email was invented in 1971—by 1973, email accounted for 75% of traffic on the network.
The men loved to write emails. They wrote millions of them. They articulated their excitement, their sadness, their rage. They flamed and fanboyed, joked and trolled, made friends and enemies. They shared their fears and dreams. Like the egg avatars of Twitter howling diatribes into the void of their ten followers today—or the nice guys of OkCupid querulously saluting dozens of strangers (“hey”) before going ballistic when they get no answer—the researchers of the early internet wanted, first and foremost, to talk.
You never can tell how people will use a network.
Almost any technology can be used for sex—and probably has.
The first humans we recognize as human used the first tools to paint a woman copulating with a bull on the walls of a cave. Not long after the invention of the photograph in the 1830s, the French poet Charles Baudelaire was complaining that you could find peepshow stereoscopes depicting prostitutes all over Paris. As soon as there were moving pictures, plucky entrepreneurs figured out that it would be lucrative to shoot smut with them. (The rules of narrative editing would take a little longer: an early porn film cuts from long shots of maidens and fawns frolicking in a glen to a close-up of the male member.)
Today, the interweaving of physical and virtual life has reached a point that seems to raise new questions.
Pornography has become ubiquitous to the point where it is the paradigm for all human experience. Nourishment, shelter, and violence can now be made “food porn,” “real estate porn,” and “war porn.” And if your kink is to insist that you’re not a pervert, but just want to keep track of the latest in pervert praxis—if your perversion is research—then the internet is great for that too.
This endless variety raises the question: What even is sex? Once we acknowledge that it can mean more than baby-making in missionary position, how far can sex be extended? The social VR app that lets a stranger seduce you through an avatar—does that count? The sext that makes you come at a touch? “What is technology?” is also a trickier question than it might seem. The VR headset clearly counts. But how about a condom? How about a technique, a position, a piece of furniture?
We don’t just use technology for sex. We use sex to interpret and inspire technology. As centuries of stories about men falling for statues and dolls and robots show, sex is one of the ways we make sense of the things we build, and the desires and the fears we feel for them. No matter how fantastical the powers that they ascribe to AIs, the stories are suspiciously the same: a male AI, even if he seems friendly, is bent on world domination. (See 2001, Transcendence.) A female AI, on the other hand, is a secretary. (See Her, Siri IRL.)
Of course, there is no reason that a computer or an algorithm should have a gender at all. However advanced our tools, they are unlikely to be more enlightened than the people who build them. These biases run deep. If we are not careful, we will continue to encode them. If we want to live as more equal subjects of desire, we will need to make better toys.
It will always be in the interest of the men who own the machines to say their machines will make the world a better place. But they have a point. The internet has been a godsend for countless people who were poorly served by more standardized forms of sexual culture—from queer teens to divorcees to professional dominatrices to people with disabilities.
On the other hand, capitalism is pretty adept at cooptation.
It is, as they say, complicated.
An app lets you source whatever strain of sex you want—or at least play a video game about people within a ten mile radius who might have sex with you. But it only lets you make some choices. Most choices it makes for you. It sorts you by a set of rules, because all algorithms are sets of rules. Above all, it converts your sex life into a subject of surveillance, and a stream of profit. Each intimate instant is making someone else money, from the first swipe right to the first relationship status to the first post-breakup revenge selfie.
You can make money for Barry Diller while you sit on the bus. You can make money for Barry Diller while you sit on the toilet.
When you tell the internet what you want, the internet remembers. Somewhere, a company is building a library of every longing on earth. A record of every fetish, every crush, every passionate and perverted thought persists on a hard drive in a climate-controlled room in Virginia or Dublin or Singapore.
What an erotic, and terrifying, vision: our desires all crammed together, sharing the same strips of disk, indefinitely. My dick pic next to your love letter, your Google search for tentacle porn next to my flirtatious Facebook message. One soup of sexuality, expanding at the speed of human thought.
It will make an odd monument for future archaeologists. What if you knew, in excruciating detail, the wildest fantasies of a third-century Chinese farmer? We will be extremely well-known to future generations. Will they find us as fascinating as we find ourselves?
We owe it to ourselves and our lovers to think through the ways that technology is rewiring sex.
The consequences are complex.
The internet can make sex workers safer—and more vulnerable to police surveillance. Smart sex toys can create new forms of pleasure—and enable corporations to spy on our intimate lives. Dating apps can make it easier to disclose HIV status—and harder to meet someone from a different class background.
These are a few of the themes explored by writers in this issue.
We hope you like it.
(We hope you more than like it.)