Pillow Talk: Patchen Barrs and The Erotic Engine

It was a key scene in Boogie Nights. Legendary porn director Jack Horner debates moving from film to video tape. We all know that porn didn't stay in the theatres it dominated in the 1970s. Instead, visual sex did move to—and revolutionize the VCR. While it is often considered that sex is a strong factor in society, it is not always remembered what a crucial roll it has played in the development of many technologies.

Patchen Barss explores the frequent aid that sex and pornography has been to the world of technology in his book The Erotic Engine. Sexlife Canada discussed this dynamic relationship with Mr. Barss.

SLC: What inspired The Erotic Engine?
PB: Pornography has transformed everything from the VCR to smartphones, but its influence is generally either ignored, or treated with a wink and a nod. I wanted to have an intelligent conversation about an important, complex phenomenon. I wanted to do more than prove how powerful pornography has been—I wanted to get into questions of why it has been so influential.

SLC: What do you think is the most surprising technological or commercial advance that has been made because of porn?
PB: I had many surprises when I was researching The Erotic Engine—porn's influence, for instance, on ancient prayer books, microfiche, and even closed captioning for the hearing impaired. But I think the thing that really made me rethink the whole book was a phenomenon sometimes called 'emergent sex.' This was something that happened in chat rooms, on BBS's in virtual worlds and elsewhere. Instead of people buying pornography from some company out there, emergent sex involved people creating porn for and with other users—everything from typing dirty in a chat room to avatar sex in Second Life.
   What really intrigued me about this was that it obliterated one of the main theses about the source of pornography's power. Lots of people say, "Of course porn drove the VCR, cable TV and the Internet—all those technologies allowed people to buy and watch porn more privately." But emergent sex was the opposite—it gave users a new way to personally connect with other people. And, it was every bit as powerful a driver of technology.

SLC: What are some of the technologies that porn makers were early adopters of?
PB: There have been so many. The most famous are those of the past half century—the VCR, cable TV, video-on-demand, bulletin board systems, and almost every Internet application you can imagine. But pornographers have been early adopters since there have been communications technologies to adopt. In fact, it goes back 40,000 years to the first forms of recorded human communications—as soon as man learned to paint on a cave wall or carve a piece of stone, he began creating images of naked men and women with exaggerated sexual characteristics. It never stopped.

SLC: Do you think groups opposed to pornography would ever refuse to use a technology if they were told porn was influential in its development?
PB: This is a really interesting question. Before I wrote this book, I would have said no, but now I'm not so sure. Given the pervasiveness or porn's influence, it's hard to imagine anyone giving up the Internet, smartphones, cable, home theatre systems and their videogame consoles. But there is no doubt that porn makes many people deeply uncomfortable.
   What I have found is that, rather than give up the technology, people adopt a different coping strategy: willful ignorance. Rather than react to the difficult truth that our tools and toys owe a debt to pornography, people instead forget or ignore this history. They just don't want to know.
   So, Blockbuster didn't carry porn at its video rental stores, even though they could not have existed without porn launching the VCR. Apple won't allow pornographic apps, even though iTunes would not exist without porn making advances in everything from e-commerce to file sharing to bandwidth. It's easier to ignore history than to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth.
   Although I find this frustrating sometimes, I get where they're coming from. I was fascinated last year by an 'eaglet cam'—a webcam trained on an eyrie where three eaglets were hatched and raised. I couldn't stop watching it. I shared it with every friend who was willing to give it a look. And here's what I learned: when someone is enjoying something like that, they don't want to be reminded, "Oh, and by the way, did you know that the webcam technology that makes this possible was driven by pornographers and sexual exhibitionists in its early days?"
   Bottom line, though: I think we have to face up to some difficult truths, and accept the full history of how technology developed.

SLC: Has porn's advancement of technology led to a loss of intimacy among us?
PB: The answer to this question could fill another book. To start with, there are two questions of intimacy here: one dealing with pornography and one with technology. It's a little bit beyond my research area to deal with the question of pornography and intimacy, but here's what I'll say: While I know there are couples who enjoy pornography together as an enhancement to their sex life, I believe that the vast majority of pornography is anti-intimacy. It commodifies, objectifies, formulizes and otherwise treats sex as the opposite of something intimate.
   The more interesting question to me has to do with the question of technology. Again, I think I would have answered the question differently before I started researching. When you look at the arc of porn-driven technological development since the 1970's, it can sure look as though it has made people more insular and disconnected. People moved from the movie theatre to the VCR in their living room. From public airwaves to subscriber-only cable and satellite. Even from getting out to a video rental store to streaming a movie over the Internet. The trend certainly appears to be toward isolation.
   But there's more to the story. Why has emergent sex been such a powerful force in technological development? I found that, very often when a new technology comes along, the early adopters are those who say to themselves, "Wait a sec—this technology allows me to express myself in ways I just couldn't before. And that allows me to connect passionately, intimately, and sexually with other people." This is most obvious on the Internet, where you have millions of people logged on at once, but once you start to view the phenomenon through that prism, it changes how you see the whole story.
   So, to answer your questions: Sometimes, porn-driven technology crushes intimacy, drawing people into isolation to consume pornography alone, and stunting their ability to form emotionally and sexually intimate relationships with other people. But sometimes these same technologies create the possibility for intimacy for people who might never otherwise have experienced it. There is no simple answer.

SLC: Is sex itself changing because of technology?
PB: Sex is being transformed in so many ways because of technology. Some ways are obvious and well documented. For instance, thanks to the Internet, adolescents today have access to more (and more extreme) forms of pornography than at any time in history. For boys especially, but also for girls, this shapes their expectations of what sex should be—creating oppressive pressure, for instance, for young women to do everything from shave their pubic hair to offer anal sex as a matter of course.
   On a very different front, I would say that the erotica in virtual worlds blurs the line between pornography and sex. Often in the media, this phenomenon comes up in the context of someone in a real world relationship who has avatar sex with someone else in a game like Second Life—there's a real question of whether this constitutes infidelity or not. But consider a different example: Suppose you think you might be gay, but you live in a conservative, homophobic community. In a virtual world, you can experiment sexually in ways that you don't feel safe doing in real life. There is no doubt that some new technologies offer people new avenues for sexual liberation.

SLC: What future advances in technology or commerce to you think porn will have a significant hand in evolving?
PB: Pornography has traditionally played the role of 'early adopter,' embracing a new medium when there is still resistance to it in the mainstream—because it's slow, glitchy, hard-to-use, uncomfortable-making or expensive. When I look around now, the technologies I see that fit that bill are things like virtual worlds, which are still very demanding of both technology and users. No surprise, many virtual worlds are currently dominated by sexual material—both traditional pornography and emergent sex. Once they get easier and more intuitive to use though, I think you'll see them move more into the mainstream.
   Another example are new 'haptic' technologies. That means they communicate more than sight and sound—they also communicate touch. That can be temperature, motion, texture, pressure, etc. Porn companies are already experimenting with haptic machines that recreate physically for the viewer the action that's happening in a porn movie. There's a big 'yuck factor' for many people here, but I see that as exactly the reason why porn will be so influential. Once the porn world has developed haptics to the point that they're ready for the mainstream, I can see applications for everything from remote massage therapy to test-driving a car without leaving your home.
   The bottom line, of course, is that nobody can predict what the next big technology will be—if we could, we'd be rich. But I can say that, whatever comes down the pipe, if it's a technology that isn't quite ready for the mainstream, then it's safe to assume that pornographers will step in.