Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hard drives and hard core porn

by Chris Moses

Walking into the Frist Campus Center last week, I overheard this gem: “But without the porn, how much data do you have?”

The conversation between two male students had something to do with backing up or copying one of their computer hard drives.

“So you only have twenty gigs of real stuff,” the conversation continued. “No problem then.”

This casual exchange struck me on a number of levels, not least the very casualness of these two elite university attendees’ public porno problem solving. Endless interpretations could be given, but I find most interesting the specific fact of their conundrum: the computer-enabled ability to amass such an extensive collection of smut that it challenged their data management capabilities.

Gone are the worries of a magazine slipping out from under the mattress. In this brave new world consternation comes only from sensual bytes’ demand for space as insatiable as the biting (and clicking and cooing) demands they were downloaded to fulfill.

With due deference to the complex, important and politically charged debates that surround the nature of pornography, I want to consider instead more medium than message. Is there something to the twenty-first century’s digital explosion of sexually explicit material than just more and more of the same old thing?

On par with the unimpeachably criminal, abusive and exploitative underbelly of legal, ‘professional’ adult entertainment, the quickness and placelessness of cyberspace can make the horrendous far easier to access and much harder to prosecute and prevent. A few days in a room in an Eastern European city with a few thousand dollars of digital equipment can produce material that features the violation of children, sexual brutality or similarly hideous deviance—pictures and movies that will be available to the world with no expiration.

Ease of access can easily undercut many of the social cues that pique a person’s moral compass and sense of consequence in witnessing otherwise reprehensible images. No dark allies, no brown paper bags, no prurient, expectation-building search or scathing eyes from suspicious onlookers—nothing to force a person to recognize the human impact of something that appears so simple to access. Online crime can seem a mere representation like any of the other endless content in the internet universe. So too does that inhumanity stultify the emotional and sexual awareness of the viewer.

Against the dystopian current in which a great deal of technophobia flows along with a sense of moral declension and ethical debasement, an equally powerful interpretive tide rises with the assurance that the democratizing power, universal potential and near-limitless capability of the internet can bring revolutionary social change on par with the invention of printing.

If the sensible position tacks between salvation and damnation when it comes to our digital future, then where does porn—one of the driving forces and uniquely profitable parts of online commerce—fit within this transformative force?

There’s a certain surprise to the absence of things sexual when it comes to understanding the internet age, especially since someone like Robert Darnton, former Princeton history professor and now University Professor and head of the Libraries at Harvard, spent an important part of his scholarly career showing us the crucial importance of sultry stories and dirty-minded books in the age of Enlightenment before he began wondering about the impact of computers upon the world of print.

More than forbidden best sellers, the eighteenth century—the century ‘inventing human rights,’ as historian Lynn Hunt has recently argued—saw the rise of the novel more generally. In many ways this genre succeeded most powerfully with a soft-porn feel, be it the temptations experienced by Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, the ill fates of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, or the more explicitly racy adventures of Cleland’s Fanny Hill.

The ability to read oneself into the lives of others—especially their bedrooms—has been seen as an important step in a larger transformation of popular moral and political sentiment. Compassion for, and engagement with, the fullest sense of every-day lives (sex being as normal and mundane as it is fantastic and enviable) provides a popular notion of equality to be paired with the more erudite and intellectual visions of thinkers like John Locke. Scholars have pointed to empathy of this sort in explaining everything from consumer-capitalist driven causes of the American Revolution to the abolition of slavery.

Will anyone ever look back to a hard drive overloaded with hard core and see the origins of a new wave of human nature and human action?

More than anything I suspect it will be taken as a sign of missed opportunity. As with a print culture that moralizes in broad strokes and lumps together the viscerally stimulating and potentially emotionally and morally educative role of sexual material with the crass and exploitative, so too has our understanding of information technology left us separating the importance of imagination and imitation from the nature of experience.

Just like readers of steamy fiction centuries ago, computer users today feel all those complicated and consuming emotions when they post and read personal adds, enter a chat room—as themselves or in disguise—or explore healthy dimensions of sexuality otherwise viewed as taboo by dominant or conservative cultures. There’s a great distance and many dimensions between online versions of scholarly journals and the web’s red-light district. The elusively private side of this very public space adds to and complicates how we think about personal association, civic culture and collective action.

Rather than accept a harsh divide between ‘porn’ and ‘real stuff,’ it might be worth charting out the transformative potential—risks and rewards—that technology entails for sexual self-understanding, gender empathy and gender equity, and the nature of emotional connectivity between the most different sorts of people.

So before completely overloading on senseless sex, it’s worth seeing if computers can do more than store our desires. Beyond the problems of porn, we might just link up with love rather than continue the pixilation of passion.

2 Comments:

At December 2, 2008 at 7:04 PM , Anonymous Dael said...

I agree with you, Chris, that "it might be worth charting out the transformative potential...that technology entails for sexual self-understanding, gender empathy and gender equity, and the nature of emotional connectivity between the most different sorts of people." However, all that this post has accomplished is a rehash of Style section logic, albeit without the cosmopolitanism, bound together by a very, very narrow view of the medium -- and content -- under discussion.

Let's start with the opening anecdote. As anyone with a passing familiarity of online pornography knows (hark, gentle readers -- one needn't be consumer to have such a sullied familiarity! just read the posts at Gawker Media's blog Fleshbot, or maybe Nerve magazine, just hold your nose and block the images!) the current medium for consumption is not files stored on a dusty personal hard-drive, but rather accessed via user-supplied YouTube clones. A cloud-computing solution, for those Economist or Wired readers out there. So your elite undergraduates, in this as in so many things, were actually playing out an anachronistic -- and imho, quite cliché -- dialogue, probably signifying more about patterns of young male bonding than anything else.

Moving along: how about that tone of neo-Victorian squeamishness, huh? Like the home chapter of a foreign missionary-society, the dangers of the exotic are alluded to ("A few days in a room in an Eastern European city with a few thousand dollars of digital equipment can produce material that features the violation of children, sexual brutality or similarly hideous deviance") but only as an appetizer, to underscore How Our Moral Society Has Broken Down in the "placelessness of cyberspace" -- whatever that means in an age where IPs can be tracked to your house, and national internet cultures have been around for some time (why do folks in the Philippines love Friendster so much?). No more "dark allies, [sic] no brown paper bags, no prurient, expectation-building search or scathing eyes from suspicious onlookers" to help point our blasted youths' moral compasses to true north! Ah, for the good old days of the village, where we could pelt transgressors with good, honest, hard-working stones.

No mention, in any of this, of the fact that a large amount of pornographic material out there is now user-generated (web 2.0!). Nor of the interesting discussions happening online -- some even in major publications! -- about the day-to-day negotiations of real people's sexuality; nothing is GGG ("good, giving, and game," in Dan Savage's parlance) here, all is exploitation -- that is, scary, sin, vice and villany.

Now, like professional productions, amateur attempts can be exploitative or not, for good or for ill -- but such a blanket condemnation advances the inquiry not at all, and does very little justice to the "lived experience" of either side of the camera (or keyboard). I don't want to overstate the quality of discussion, production, or consumption of the huddle masses yearning to be free (of some fleshy burdens) online, but I do think it important to recognize the range of what's out there. There's more out there Eastern European horse porn, Horatio. But whatever you're into...

Too, I question the truthiness of the claim that internet porn is "one of the driving forces and uniquely profitable parts of online commerce." As the "clone" part of the "Youtube-clone" description might suggest, pornography is not now at the cutting edge, but rather in the rear of the vanguard, whatever the glorious Betamax past might have been; and as for the profitability, I've yet to ever see any reliable figures on the size of the industry, much less its profitablity. These are not publicly held companies, eh? The sheer number of operators would suggest that a lot of money is being made -- but much of their content is not, strictly speaking, theirs to vend. Similarly, the questionable legality of porn operations, in any country (including ours), does not lend itself to reliable data collection. Both the technological and business virility of porn producers are, like the pneumatic and priapic actors they employ, largely performative, not utilitarian. They are tropes with a small grains of truth, no doubt, but most often uttered by those with an ax to grind: producers looking for legitimacy, Focus on the Family looking for straw-men to hang in effigy, op-ed columnists looking forgrist to grind.

Ah, but let's not forget the main course: the answer proposed (!) is love, twue lowve ("Beyond the problems of porn, we might just link up with love rather than continue the pixilation of passion.") What's wrong, precisely with passion, just passion, pixalated or not? Yes, true enough, the world needs love -- but perhaps it also needs to chill out a bit, and get laid (I'd link to something about the several incarnations of world orgasm day, but jeez I don't want to scorch your screens). There are many more than reasons to have sex, with oneself or others, than love; perhaps a list would be of help? ( http://www.cbs.com/primetime/how_i_met_your_mother/community/50_reasons/index.php )

This all aside from the fact that the central claim of the post is based on a very contentious reading of the effects of certain types of print culture on Western society: that the increase in the availability and diversity of printed materials made for an increase in human empathy, in the mid- to long-run, over the course of the early modern to modern era. Aside from the startling amount of violence and human depravity that the latter end of that run of "progress" witnessed -- two world wars? European imperialism? -- there's the non-trivial problem of proving that line of causation. Color me skeptical, but Breen, Hunt, et al. don't have me convinced.

But even granting the point, that print culture accomplished such a thing, why should we suspect that the transformations wrought by today's newish media will be any different? After all, the pornography Darton studied didn't advance human rights all by itself -- print culture as a whole did. So there's an error in logic here, alongside the neo-Victorian nostalgia.

So, to end a far-too-long rant: potted philosophy is not what's needed here. Attention to what's actually out there, what people are actually doing, might lead us to conclusions both surprising and not. The world is full of sick people, the world is full of wonderful people, most of both are having sex in ways that would disgust most of the people most of the time; and an undergraduate conversation does not a major shift in human history make.

Further thoughts or discussion heartily solicited.

 
At December 3, 2008 at 12:20 PM , Anonymous Chris said...

I appreciate your comments, Dael, and in particular some of the more technically savvy insight you bring to bear – or should it be bare?

I worry though that some of your fiery flippancy might be reading too much argument into observations that are given with a certain amount of jest or get countered elsewhere by my own words. I might not have the cosmopolitanism of the NYTimes Style section (which seems to report more news, if annoyingly, than many other venues) but I do think I manage wit, nay, dare I claim dialectic, a bit more adroitly than that paragon of Things That Matter.

On the factual side, I agree that much porn doesn’t get downloaded – but I also know what iTunes TV has done to my hard drive, and can imagine that copying DVDs or other methods of accumulating data can indeed occupy a huge amount of memory. Perhaps the burden born by us less astute users.

This flutter of new and different forms of computing runs into a bigger and I think more interesting question – simply, the speed and range of change. I’m not sure how to square this display of up-to-the-minute critique with a more general, anti-sky-is-falling, gradualist sense of change (or even an argument for continuity) given elsewhere in your post.

I agree the need for some healthy skepticism about certain historians’ claims, but I’m not sure I really took sides in the way you describe (nor thing “very contentious” does anything more than stir what is but a tempest in the teapot of certain gentile academic parties). I think the phrase “explaining everything from X to Y” has a certain tongue-in-cheek import – surely a closer reader such as you self see this.

In fact I loathe certain of these empathy-based arguments, especially those having to do with anti-slavery. But I think they point towards a certain symptom that’s useful to recognize. I do go on to describe the current problem as a “missed opportunity” followed by “As with…” relating back to these historical concerns. My bigger point is about the absence of pornography in the majority of main-stream (or at least famous old fogey) debates about technology, print, media and communication in the computer age.

As for being a neo-Victorian, I was trying to give a certain respect for some of the real and very awful things that do go hand in hand with the sex industry (which does happen with some frequency in Eastern Europe – more factual and quite far from any fantasyland of exoticism or colonialism as I think of it – no Gauguin in Bulgaria or sultry Romanian natives in the travel narratives.)

How do I end up so harshly in one corner: “the sensible position tacks between salvation and damnation…”

My conclusion, if anything, tends to point more away from than towards constraint: against “a print culture that moralizes in broad strokes;” to “explore healthy dimensions of sexuality otherwise viewed as taboo by dominant or conservative cultures;” “Rather than accept a harsh divide between ‘porn’ and ‘real stuff,’” etc.

So too the call to get beyond “senseless sex” has as much to do with encouraging people to do wildly whatever the hell their odd-ball imaginations really feel like doing as the phrase “link up with love” exudes a certain irony vis-à-vis techno lingo, online dating and the like in many of the same ways you satirize “true love” based poorly stale reading of the very same thing.

Likewise the assumption of progress: it was “risks and rewards,” for better or worse. It’s about change, not a judgment of its goodness or the opposite.

Perhaps more interesting is the divide between what people actually do, online or in their bedrooms, and what can be spoken about in public. My bigger hope would be to break down this barrier, rather than dwelling on the particular prejudices we have for how to talk about technology.

I’m all for sex – lots of it, for everyone – have fun, for the love of god. I’m not sure how anything I wrote suggests otherwise, except perhaps that maxing out your hard drive rather than giving technology its due for the chance it might bring for some real-life action is a bit of a shame.

Hopefully a broader framework, the biggest, if imperfect tent for inviting reflection, will draw out other sorts of histories and contemporary practices rather than dwelling on whether or not people use computers as they’re supposed to. Isn’t the whole point that, just as with our bodies, computers, etc., are only whatever we make of them – not some preconceived notion of for what they’re made? I agree with the way you help expanding thinking about the former, but don’t think it useful to make determined recourse to the latter.

-- Chris

 

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