sex and technology
Nascent technologies will always be misappropriated by our baser instincts, it's nothing new Toyota

Well that didn't take long. Even the nascent technology darling that is the self-driving car cannot escape being squinted at through a moral lens as those inevitable thoughts surface of how, like most new technologies, it could be misappropriated by the sex industry.

"I am predicting that, once computers are doing the driving, there will be a lot more sex in cars," Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence's Barrie Kirk told the Toronto Sun.

Sex and technology have always been, both literally and metaphorically, the closest of bedmates, but there hasn't been a technology that has either been grasped by pornographers, or been the object of puritanical moral panics for fear that it will be.

According to Tom Standage, author of The Victorian Internet, straight-laced Victorians were wary even of something as seemingly innocuous as the telegraph lest it be fraught with sexual dangers. An article entitled "The Dangers of Wired Love", published in 1896, warned of the consequences of allowing women to use the new communications technology without supervision.

Even earlier, while the church rallied against Gutenburg for printing bibles, others found moveable type amenable to more licentious purposes. Pietro Aretino's Postures, published in 1524, was little more than a catalogue of engravings of sexual positions each accompanied by a bawdy poem. And Francois Rabelais' at times highly-lewd series Gargantua and Pantagruel (1530-40) fast became a best-seller. Rabelais' claim that "more copies of it have been sold by the printers in two months than there will be of the Bible in nine years" was probably true.

Even august scholar Samuel Pepys was no stranger to the seedier side of life. In 1655 he procured a copy of L'Escholle Des Filles "which is a mighty lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform himself in the villainy of the world." Is that the 17th century equivalent of claiming to read Playboy "for the articles"? And in the 1600s equivalent of clearing your cache, Pepys wrote: "And after I had done it I burned it, that it might not be among my books to my shame."

In more modern times, sex has been quick to thrive where man's ingenuity runs free. Le Coucher de la Mariée, thought to have been shot in 1896, is believed to be the earliest pornographic film. Given that the first legitimate film studios were built only in 1897, the speed at which the pornographers spotted the technological opportunity and exploited it makes today's entrepreneurs look positively tardy.

Enter the saviour of VHS

And while claims that it was the adoption by the sex industry of the video format VHS over rival Betamax have been proved to be at best exaggerated (the demand for videotape proved to be pre-recorded movies, the strong point for VHS), it is true that were it not for the pornography industry, e-commerce would have taken longer. It was the 1996 leaking of the notorious Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee sex tape that drove the adoption of Electronic Card Systems, an online credit card processor founded by Richard J. Gordon. Amazon owes Tommy and Pam a debt.

But while sex has long been a driver for technological change, moral panic has sought to curb those changes. Canada's Barrie Kirk can trace his pearl-clutching back to the ancient Greeks. Socrates railed against writing. In Plato's Phaedrus, he feared that if people relied on the written word they would "cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful."

In more modern times, a 1981 motion to ban Space Invaders was presented (unsuccessfully) in Parliament. Speaking for the motion, the splenetic Labour MP George Foulkes rallied against "the force for evil which can arise among young people from addiction to Space Invader machines. They play truant, miss meals, and give up other normal activity to play 'Space Invaders,'" he told a credulous House of Commons. "They become crazed, with eyes glazed, oblivious to everything around them." Presumably, Foulkes is no fan of Grand Theft Auto.

Genevieve Bell, a Vice President and Fellow at Intel where she directs the company's Corporate Sensing & Insights group, said: "We have had moral panic over new technology for pretty well as long as we have had technology. It is one of the constants in our culture. Moral panic is remarkably stable and it is always played out in the bodies of children and women," she once told me.

"All the early stuff about electricity in the United States, the pushback about electrifying homes. If you electrify homes you will make women and children and vulnerable. Predators will be able to tell if they are home because the light will be on, and you will be able to see them. So electricity is going to make women vulnerable. Oh and children will be visible too and it will be predators, who seem to be lurking everywhere, who will attack."

Bell gave three rules that any technology has to pass to induce moral panic: It has to change your relationship to time; it has to change your relationship to space; and it has to change your relationship to other people. This, she says, is why the fountain pen slipped under the radar, but the internet is the devil's playground.

Of course, Bell's laws of moral panic shift into overdrive when it comes to virtual reality. If anything is going to change your relationship to people it has to be the idea of having vicarious sex with a projected image of a permanently sexually available partner. When IBTimes UK tried out the murky world of VR porn it was described as "so realistic it would probably make people feel like they were cheating on their partners ... she really was right there in front of me."

The latter-day George Foulkes of this world are going to dissolve in apoplexy.

At heart, the problem is that culture is a linear process, while technology is exponential. It takes a long time for cultures to change, but Moore's Law tells us technological power doubles every 18 months. So not only are moral panics not going away, the rate at which they happen is likely to increase as technology pulls ever further ahead of society's ability to handle the impact.

Expect a lot more pearl-clutching on the road ahead.


Ben Rooney is the former technology editor of The Wall Street Journal in Europe.