Book Report: ‘The Erotic Engine’ explores porn’s influence on technology
Porn is as old as cave drawings.
Put another way, as soon as man could draw himself with a larger penis, he did.
As soon as he could make a dollar off of his drawing, he did that, too. Ever since, the creation, distribution and sale of pornography has both influenced and been influenced by technology and mass communication.
For our second installment of Raven’s Book Report series, we asked The Erotic Engine author Patchen Barss to discuss his research into porn and communications, as well as what technology businesses can learn from the advances and mistakes of pornography pioneers.
Which comes first: the medium or the porn? Are there exceptions?
Most commonly, pornographers are early adopters of new media. So, the medium comes first. Very often, though, pornographers move so quickly that the porn and tech emerge, in effect, concurrently. From the instant it was technologically possible to take a photograph of a human being, for example, there were photographs of naked human beings. Adult videos were a part of the VCR’s history from the very start. There was never a publicly available Internet that wasn’t steeped in pornography.
Pornographers sometimes like to portray themselves as technological visionaries devoted to bringing new technological wonders to the mainstream. My research does not support this assertion. In fact, the porn industry’s power to advance new technology is really a byproduct of their efforts to overcome their many hurdles: marginalization, lack of major start-up capital, legal challenges and societal backlash.
There are a few exceptions where pornographers actually created, rather than adopted technologies. The most famous example is that of streaming video — it was actually a porn company that developed the first practical way to stream video over the Internet. Pornographers also developed many key e-commerce technologies that were later adopted by mainstream companies like eBay and Amazon. Pornographers developed the basic tools that allowed for the commercialization of the Internet.
Porn and content
You write about the link between erotica and elitism before widespread literacy made pornography attainable for the “unwashed masses.” When it comes to modern-day communication mediums, do you feel there is still a class of elites?
In the fourteenth century only the very, very rich and powerful had the means to own a book. (And even then, they generally owned only one, which helps explain how prayers to the Virgin Mary and dirty pictures ended up in the same volume.) The printing press had a democratizing effect, offering more people the means both to produce and consume content, including pornography. The Internet has had a similar effect, making both the consumption and production of content much more widely accessible.
Today, (democratic) Twitter has arguably better fact-gathering and fact-checking mechanisms than the (elite) New York Times. And there is no doubt that more people today have access to more—and more extreme—pornography than at any time in history.
But media elites have not disappeared. There are still major media organizations that hold disproportionate sway over public discourse, political agendas and entertainment content.
Porn purveyors make money selling content, a struggle for nearly every mainstream media company today. Why is porn content more valuable to a consumer than, say, news or educational content?
This was one of the big questions I tried to answer—it seems a sector of society has always been willing to pay a premium in order to view erotic content. (Editor’s Note: That’s changing, says Time Warner.) One answer is that pornography speaks to that most basic and universal human motivator: sex drive. There’s a wealth of research explaining why people want to watch other people have sex. This explanation only takes you so far, though.
It’s not a coincidence that pornography yields its influence on communications technology in particular. It turns out that many people have a very strong desire that goes beyond sex drive: it’s the impetus to express, and be expressed to, sexually. Although many porn consumers embraced new technologies because they offered more privacy, I also repeatedly found that at heart, many users were actually seeking some sort of connection via the technology.
What is it about pornographers that makes them say, as you wrote, “Fuck all the old shit. Get with this new shit,” while mainstream media and consumers wring their hands about new technology? Is there a difference in the kind entrepreneurs that pornographers are? Or is it a gender thing, i.e., most early adopters are men (though not for long) and most porn consumers are male?
Mainstream media companies can both afford to and have a responsibility to do market research, and to move slowly and carefully into new media. Pornography producers have neither those luxuries nor obligations. They often make technological leaps out of necessity, rather than as a result of vision or boldness. Pornography consumers are a little different—they do seem more willing to embrace new, expensive, glitch-y and unfamiliar technologies if it means they can get erotica in a new form.
There is a clear overlap in the gender demographic of the majority of porn consumers and the majority of early technology adopters. But I believe this enhances the phenomenon, rather than being the root cause.
Let’s talk porn content and search engines. When an average person thinks of Google, porn probably doesn’t come to mind. It’s just not associated with the brand. Why?
There are many reasons—from Google’s highly effective self-portrayal as a “do no evil” company, to the simple fact that it’s very easy to use Google every day without ever encountering porn. But I think there is often an element of willful ignorance at play. A computer programmer I spoke to who spent time at Google told me that about three quarters of searches are for pornography. That is an overwhelming number. How can people not know how dependent the company is on porn?
Many in the porn industry cry hypocrisy at this unwillingness to face such an obvious reality, but the fact is that many people are sincerely and deeply uncomfortable with the idea that pornography might have an influence on their lives.
While I think it’s important to be honest about where our technology comes from, I understand why not everybody wants to know about it.
Porn and romance
You espouse that porn brought friendship, romance and passion to the Internet, not just smut. Why is it “inconceivable” to so many that “filtering sexuality through a machine can actually increase intimacy”? Do you see that viewpoint changing now that 1 out of every 5 (or 6) couples meet online?
People don’t just find it inconceivable: they also find it disgusting, weird and alienating. Part of what people find so off-putting about virtual intimacy is simply its unfamiliarity. Whether it’s old BBS‘s and chatrooms or modern virtual worlds, the technology is difficult, and there is a divide between those who make the effort to explore these electronic realms and those who do not. People on the outside tend to see an online relationship as some sort of sad alternative to real life interaction. But for those who embrace these technologies, virtual intimacy is an enhancement and often an extension of their non-tech reality.
People find it weird to hear about others getting married, setting up house and even having children in a virtual world. But consider a possibly more intuitive scenario: suppose you think you’re gay, but you live in a highly homophobic community. A virtual world might give you a chance to explore your own sexuality and to find the kind of emotionally fulfilling relationships that seem impossible, at a given time, for you to find in the real world. Why shouldn’t this work for anyone who finds it easier or better to connect via such technology?
I think attitudes are changing—there used to be a stigma around online dating sites that is now long gone. Fully virtual relationships and sex, though, are still far from mainstream acceptance.
Even if a person has never been part of a MMORPG, how have the sexual aspects of those games affected their virtual experiences?
On a technological level, the chain of causality is clear: One of the big selling points of MMORPGs has always been sexual content. In their pursuit of virtual sex, users drove demand for greater bandwidth, faster internet connections and better computer interfaces. They bought modems, installed phone lines, overloaded servers and routers. In the spiraling pursuit of higher quality porn media, they upgraded and pushed their ISPs to do the same. These technological improvements, created by a demand for sex, built the infrastructure of the Internet as we know it.
Porn and good business
What can other online business learn from the relationship between online porn and good customer service?
Porn companies have historically had to work extra hard to make their customers feel safe and comfortable spending money on the Internet. The most famous example is Dannie Ashe, a stripper and nude model who discovered in the 1990s that her pictures were trading for free among the tech-savvy users of online proto-communities known as Usenet. She set up a website that sold the same pictures that were circulating for free. She became a multi-millionaire. The secret to her success was that she made it easy for customers to get those pictures — her actual value-add was customer service.
The porn industry has taught other online businesses many other lessons, including how to use affiliate marketing, how to conduct secure e-commerce, and how to track customer preferences so as to be able to recommend other products they might like. Most of what we know about how to commercialize the Internet can be traced back to the work of porn companies.
Pornographers pioneered affiliate marketing systems, cookies, file sharing, even “long tail” business models and email-based direct marketing—all things today’s online marketers associate with above-board marketing. What is the relationship between pornography and spammers, hackers and pirates?
Pornographers have also been “pioneers” in all of these scam techniques and more. The most outrageous scam I learned about were porn companies that included in the small print of the agreement that if a person cancelled their monthly membership, it actually authorized the company to bump them up to a more expensive “premium” membership.
On the flip side, pirates and hackers have always tended to attack porn companies disproportionately—there’s seems to be an attitude that, because this is a “vice” industry, they deserve what they get. Both sides of the scamming issue have forced everyone to improve their security—which once again has spin-off benefits for mainstream companies.
Porn and the future
How has technology turned on porn (e.g., tube sites)? Are pornographers now victims of their own online success?
Right now, the pornography industry is being devoured by the very technologies it helped create. A confluence of high bandwidth, intuitive interfaces, and streaming video technology (all originally driven by porn) have led to the rise of “tube sites” that stream porn as easily as YouTube streams everything else. These free sites create a strong disincentive for people to pay for porn online. Porn companies’ profits have plummeted.
This development comes as no surprise, though. Pornography traditionally does well when a technology is new, and then loses its clout as the medium matures. The Internet has come of age, and pornographers may have to look to new emerging technologies in order to perpetuate their role as tech influencers.
Do you think that the split identities of companies that offer services to the adult industry and to mainstream businesses will ever be able to merge?
Not any time soon. I spoke to many techies and marketers in the porn industry who were considering moves to the mainstream. I asked them if the technological mystique outweighed the stigma of working in the porn industry.
To a one, they said they would drop their porn credentials when applying for a mainstream job.
The Raven Internet Marketing Tools Book Report is an occasional series featuring new marketing, communications and creativity books, including exclusive interviews with authors. To purchase your copy of The Erotic Engine: How Pornography has Powered Mass Communication, from Gutenberg to Google by Patchen Barss, go to Amazon.com for Kindle, hardcover and paperback editions. Learn more about his upcoming projects at PatchenBarss.com. Follow him on Twitter, too: PatchenBarss.