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Artificial Skintelligence: The Fleshlight at the End of the Tunnel

Borg Life is a new multimedia column about technologized bodies and the growing pains we experience as we adjust to cyborg life.

Future Sex, Also, Love Sounds

While gunning head-on towards the singularity, we’re living in the future. So why are we still sexing each other up like it was a decade when a Color Me Badd reference would be obvious? Now, we’re not talking Jude Law in AI, or even Ryan Gosling in The Real Girl (Ok. Some of us are really talking that). But what is the future of fucking? If every other thing in our lives can be taken as an indicator, I’d say it’s going to be wired. It’s also going to get seriously weird. With the furor over teen sexting and the righteous boner we popped for Wienergate, communication technologies will obviously play a part. But wherever this e-river flows, be sure to pack a towel (or at least an old sock) because these cyber-rapids are cresting white with porno, and everybody’s getting splashed. Join me:

Who Feeds the Machines With Their Own Flesh?!

She doesn’t even blink; just smiles with her hand on her ankle, leg straight extended high above her head. Her bushy dark pubic hair is gobbed with thick clumps of cum, and a headless man is half flaccid between her thighs. It’s like she doesn’t even notice him. She never takes her eyes off of me and her smile never fades. There, in my room, is the state of pornography in early 2012. We’ve come a long way, and like any industry tethered to the Internet, we’ve come all this way in a very short span of time. But unlike any other industry or product available in the United States—unlike, say, totally illegal drugs that have huge subcultures built around them—pornography is unique because for all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist. On paper, pornography is an enormously mass-produced product which grosses billions of dollars per year, but in polite society it should be understood that nobody consumes the stuff. Fair enough. Me neither.

Given our cultural radio silence on the issue, pornography seems like a lonely quasar on the edge of the conversational universe, dumping massive amounts of horny energy into a social black hole. It’s a weird setup. Here we have The Industry which, in 2006, cranked out around 288 smut productions in the United States alone…per week. That’s 41 titles per day, nearly two every hour, which means that every 30 minutes or so someone—somewhere—is thinking, “what’s my motivation?” RE: doing it. In most cases we could expect that such a large industry should have an enormous and obvious following; any other would have invested in at least one giant glass building where product enthusiasts could come together and share their user experiences in broad daylight. Statistically, 7.5 percent of the United States population regularly visits Internet porn sites. That’s 40 million adults, or just over 1 in 7 if you’d like some food for thought next time you’re on mass transit.

It used to be that we knew who the “perverts” were. They walked out of Arcade News with brown paper bags. They’d mill around the video store before quietly ducking into the curtained section. They’d Paul Rubens and George Michaels. But where are they now? Cozied up with their pants around their ankles, interfacing sensually with Hi-Res displays and Hi-Speed connections. If you, or somebody you know, is struggling with an addiction to Internet Pornography—which, as we’ve seen, is a statistical certainty—don’t worry: it’s going to get soooo much better.

I totally understand if you think I’m being insensitive. Addiction is a disease, make no mistake, but pornography is not heroin or crack. Nobody is getting HIV from used Hustlers, nobody is out sucking dick for XXX.avi samples. We Internet porn users are functional members of society. In fact, if we were to look at this through a self-help lens, it turns out the majority of FuckNet users make over $75K a year, which makes wanking a contender for the Eighth Habit of Highly Effective People. Most of the literature on Internet porn seems focused on proving its negative effects or harshing previous studies for unsound methods and cherry-picked results. There are only three things I can definitively say after my deep plunge into research literature:

There is a lot—a lot—of porn on Planet Earth.
Most Earthlings agree that children should not be exposed to any of it.
Children are exposed to porn. A lot of it.

The People Want Paradise

The other day I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and I saw a post headlined, “Do You Remember?” It was one of those wall pictures that had been shared across thousands of users, surviving the digital drainhole of hundreds of networks of acquaintances, until, finally, there it appeared on my screen. “Do you remember staying OUTSIDE all day and only coming in WHEN THE SUN SET?” “Do you remember….” Something else. I stopped reading it. But I assume the gist was that, like, who cares about ‘outside’ these days?

In fact, I do remember something like that. Summer days spent walking aimlessly on the railroad tracks and through creekbeds in Austin, TX. Making up games with no rules that ended when we forgot how to play so we’d make new ones. I remember setting brush fires and throwing rocks at windows and laughing and playing ding dong ditch with my lowercase g’s. But I also remember the transmission reveille of a 56k modem, and waiting three minutes for a lo-res .jpg to load pixel by pixel till I’d lost my little teen boner. I remember having to excuse myself from the Compuserve chatrooms because my mom had to use the landline to make a phone call.

Be real. That was a different world. It was populated by humans who had to DOS prompt, and blow into cartridges when their games broke. These people spent 30 minutes flipping through Brittanica-sized volumes to find a scratched Smashmouth CD. That’s just not what’s up anymore, people. The generation now coming of age in the United States don’t know what a reality without the Internet looks like. These kids are simultaneous. They text and tumblr and tweet like it’s as natural as farting when you piss. For them the Internet is a place in reality where they must actively maintain appearances. Their accumulation of profiles are almost as representative of their person as their persons are. Socially, the lines between the two are getting blurrier. In an interview with the New York Times, Christopher Poole, founder of 4chan, that weird ditch at the edge of the web that spawned the Anonymous movement, remarked that “as kids, we say stupid things, and because there’s not a record of it, nobody is going to give you a hard time at 30 years old about something you said or did when you were 8 years old. Online, you have all these social networks that are moving to a state of persistent identity, and in turn, we’re sacrificing the ability to be youthful. In 10 years, everything you say and do will be visible online, and I think it’s really unfortunate.”

Now while I’m not sure if what is happening is really a sacrifice of youth, I do see this tethering effect. Like humans through the eyes of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five, the rise of social networks are stringing us into the fourth dimension. Online, new humans will exist as a collection of their lifelong actions. No doubt it’ll effect them off-line. Maybe it’ll make people more conscious of consequences, or maybe it’ll just desensitize them to the reality that everyone’s a jerk. Who knows? What is becoming obvious is that the youth are comfortable with computers, and in the near future, their lives as human beings may be unimaginably different than anything we have ever seen on Earth.

The rise of sexting in teen relationships shows that young humans are comfortable with utilizing computers as sexual vehicles. In a focus group organized by the New York Times to see what teenagers thought of the sexting phenomenon, Kathy, a seventeen-year-old from Queens, claimed that “there’s a positive side to sexting. You can’t get pregnant from it, and you can’t transmit STD’s. It’s kind of a safe sex.”

In 2009 the top three web searches for children of both genders were “Youtube,” “Google,” and “Facebook,” in that order. The fourth was a split. For females it was “Taylor Swift,” and for males it was “sex.” Regardless of what the seemingly pop-addled and bubblegum obsession over Taylor Swift might actually imply for the impending sexuality of young girls, their statistical preference for her was only just above “sex,” which was matched in the fifth place with “porn” for boys. Of course the landscape of the Internet has changed quite a bit in three years. Myspace is now a wasteland, Facebook and Google are all-encompassing, and the children who would now be the focus of a similar study were weaned on algorithms and connection speeds that have turned instant gratification into a God-given right.

Is it unhealthy? I don’t know. I can’t really take a side; childhood development is way out of my scope. Are children being exposed to pornography? Yes. Certainly. How could they not be? We produce a God’s weight of porn every year. If porn were plastic and humanity were water, children’s eyes/ears/brains would be that huge vortex in the Pacific Ocean. Nobody knows what to do with it, but it’s definitely getting bigger because we can’t stop using plastic. Or jerking off.

Unfortunately, we have yet to see conclusive wide-ranging data that suggests what this means for our sex lives down the line. Still, we can guess. Will it lower the age at which children start engaging in sexual relations with each other, or will it remove a primary contributor to their current interest in getting it on?

However, in one recent study of 28,000 Italian men results suggested that many were suffering from some new shit they’re calling Sexual Anorexia. A bunch of these dudes started using Internet porn around fourteen years old, and consuming so much of it that by the their mid-twenties they were uninterested in having real-life sex. It has to do with an inability to invent sexual fantasies and, I guess, a kind of Pavlovian deal when only pixels can pique their pricks.

Today, access to content that spans the breadth of global pervert ingenuity has become as simple as toggling the SafeSearch on Google Images from On to Off and typing in any random word or number you like. What we’re seeing now is the development of the first generations of modern humans who will learn all about sex from machines.

An Insect Who Dreamt He Was a Man

There’s a scene in the 1993 sci-fi movie Demolition Man in which John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) and Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), seem as though they’re about to have sex. Just as Spartan, who has been cryogenically frozen for 36 years thinks that it’s finally going to happen, Huxley pulls out a device to be placed on their heads. In this future, as imagined by writers Peter M. Lenkov and Robert Reneau, humans no longer engage in physical sex. They use technology as a sensual proxy. The scene, like any good science fiction, holds some very non-fiction potential. Every part of our modern lives has been revolutionized in convenience, efficiency, and speed by computers. But the fact that we are willing now to include these gadgets in our sexual lives means something else entirely.

Despite off the charts revenues, the porn industry doesn’t seem to be actively investing in futuristic Fuck Tech. This surprises me. The idea that sex sells could become some crazy self-perpetuating money-making machine. A future human might one day stand before her fellow citizens and say: “To think, our species was at the brink of societal collapse. But here we are. We should all take a moment to remember our forefathers, the producers of Edward Penis Hands XVIII: Planet of Penis Hands. If they hadn’t invented the Ionic Plasma Propulsion system so that people could fuck in space…well…where would we be today?” Then she would turn in reverence, a single tear catching the light of the Martian sunset.

Even though the porn industry isn’t investing, the Tech that may just change sex forever is already seeping out of the labs and onto the consumer market. Brain Computer Interface (BCI) has been in the slow cooker for years. Now companies like NeuroSky and Emotiv have rung the dinner bell. These things are really astounding. Essentially Electroencephalogram (EEG) rigs, the sensor hairnets that doctors stick onto your head to look at your brainwaves. But these are really slick ones. Emotive has the EPOC which they call a “high resolution neuro-signal acquisition and processing wireless neuroheadset.” Let’s not science around this and just come out and say it: this thing lets you use a computer with your fucking brain. Wirelessly. And here we were all waiting for that gesture interface from Minority Report. Ha! Future! While the EPOC, and NeuroSky’s Mindwave headset are functional inputs, the real sexy shit will come when we figure out Two-Way BCI.

In very unsexy research at Duke University, nerds have wired up some monkeys and trained them to ‘feel’ virtual objects. Using their brains to move an avatar hand, these monkeys can successfully distinguish between different VR ‘textures.’ What they experience is sensory feedback directly in the brain. Now, these textures aren’t quite velvet and lace, of course. For now they’re just different intensities of vibration, but give it a few. Bet if the Bang Bros threw a little R&D budget that way we’d probably already be cyberscrewing Marge Simpson in some freaky pervert matrix.

Enter the world of Teledildonics (TD), With TD setups users engage in sexual exchange with the Internet between them. For a device to be certifiable TD it needs to have hardware like a dildo or a fleshlight wired through software which interprets the sender’s actions and transmits them to the receiver’s device. For now the technology is pretty clunky; wired apparatuses which translate inputs in simple thrust, vibrate, motorize actions in the output device. The future is open though. Current TD should be seen as a stepping stone. What these products show is that there is a willingness to use technology to enhance or supplement our sexuality.

Take all this and make of it what you will; I do. In the year 2525 will wires and nerves and Google and neurons—and the Singularity and shit—all come together with our genitals? Will it be cool? Will it suck? Will ‘suck’ be stricken from the lexicon because of early FukTek fears of fatal electrocution? I don’t know. I know that I know that you don’t know, and, all in all: whatever. If we’ve learned anything at all about this wacky living thing, let it be this: we’re brand new at existing. Thus, who the fuck knows?

Carib Guerra is est.1984+41.2-123.2;1/6992694217;loc.+40.7-73.9circa2012; you can find him on twitter @44Carib, or uploading in something sort of resembling real-time here.

All artwork courtesy of Matthew Palladino.