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.