Sex and Computational Technology

by Megan M. on March 11, 2007 (Blog) |

[X] 05:00PM Sex and Computational Technology (9AB)

Note for those at work: The subject of this panel was largely teledildonics; even though there aren’t any images, know what you’re getting into before you go reading on. The links, also, are going to be largely NSFW.

Amanda Williams – University of California at Irvine
Violet Blue – Blogger, Open Source Sex
Johanna Brewer – University of California at Irvine
Kyle Machulis – Engineer, Nonpolynomial Labs
Cory Silverberg – Author & Educator, Come As You Are &

Much of this is not material that would generally be presented in a mainstream setting, which is what makes the birth of this panel so fabulous! Amanda Williams is moderating, explaining about user interfaces centered around the user as a brain, eyes, and hands. We’ve got plenty on virtual communities and Web 2.0, but all that hints that the real and the virtual are not so easily separated. There’s plenty of overlap and interaction between the two, and that really comes out when we start to talk about sex and computational technology.

Amanda: “…And Kyle has some magical toys.” (Kyle holds up something that looks like a short, fat bowling pin made of shiny silver… heh!

Continuity of intimacy: Johanna has been working on a mobile music interface. This actually does have a lot to do with sex; she’s spent a lot of time talking to people and finding out about people imagining realities about other people—if you have a dog, what your day is like, what you do in the evenings, there are all kinds of cues that people use to understand what this other person is like especially if you’ve just met. One of the things that this bordered on was sexual fantasies and how, perhaps, we develop crushes! There is one fellow who maybe rode the train for an extra leg with someone he thought was attractive, you make a link with a person you don’t know, you hope to find out more about them. There are so many intimate, unspoken connections that people are making with each other, and some will say no, this is unnatural, this is stalking, these people are freaks! But this is what people do.

Johanna came up against a really strong block in mainstream companies in regards to developing technology to relate to these concepts, because of the worry that this is stalking, but she’s working on applications herself. We might want to take a closer look at the continuity of intimacy that’s going on—it doesn’t have to be for sex, but it may be useful, whether or not it’s branded a “sex technology”.

What we’re actually doing: Violet says, what happens to be missing from the pornography market is what people are actually doing, instead of what people think they’re doing. People are doing all kinds of wonderful, interesting and kinky things on their own, things they’re not allowed to talk about, and mainstream pornography seems to suggest that we’re all doing the same Barbie-shaped fantasies. This is very interesting and probably very true—because wow, we don’t like to talk about what we’re actually doing, do we! Furthermore, she says that people are creating sexual technology when they don’t understand the sex and they don’t understand the technology—what is missing from the market is what people actually would use, would want to use. This is why the state of sexual technology at the moment is mostly not very useful.

Every human wants to sexualize every piece of technology they come across—and this is true, and it isn’t useful to us to try to slip it under the radar. I think this is what Violet said, and I don’t know if I entirely agree or disagree; also, the media loves to talk about sexual technology without any sort of critical thinking, which (Cory adds) is why we go read (LOL!)

The oldest use of porn, Cory continues, was to turn customers on so that they would pay for play in brothels, etc. That use did not include any kind of happy ending, because of course that would mean less opportunity to ultimately sell the happy ending. I’m not sure where this fits in, but it’s clear that we need to improve our quality and (especially!) our understanding of sex, and to do this we need to talk about it.

Incredibly interesting uses for sexual tech: The computational technology that is out there is capable of responding much more quickly than previous technologies; sex is a constant negotiation of action and response, and it’s particularly useful to have tech that responds in more and more intuitive ways. An example of new technology—Cory is talking about autonomic dysreflexia. This happens in people with spinal cord injuries, where your blood vessels constrict for some reason and there is a block to the brain, so that the brain doesn’t get the right messages. And autonomic dysreflexia is triggered by vibration somehow. What he’s saying is that it’s not inconceivable to develop a vibrator that someone with a disability could use that would feed back what’s going on in the body, because of this trigger. This sort of tech could be really interesting because instead of just mediating between one person and their partner, it’s really functional to that one person in terms of connecting with their body. (I hope I got all that right! Cory talks fast!) And I don’t completely understand this, but I thought it was really interesting that he included it and seemed so excited about it!

It’s also not inconceivable, he says, especially with the bad teledildonic tech that exists now, that with a laptop and a bunch of toys, a person could have any kind of sex they want. He says later on that a lot of researchers who tackle sexual tech forget that we are all screwed up about sex. By and large, starting from scratch is what we need to be doing! So the people that he’s really excited about, they’re the ones starting from scratch and really thinking about the state of sexuality in human beings at the moment. I really agree with him on the one point—we are all screwed up and we are all keeping everything too much behind closed doors. These are things we can be talking about and understanding and they are things that can bring us together and help us relate better to ourselves, really start getting ourselves as people. Some of us are doing this, but many, many, many of us are just afraid. Which is ultimately why this post used a ‘more’ tag. (There may be future debates about this NSFW thing, and the use of the ‘more’ tag except in instances of exceedingly long posts… er… like this one.)

Kyle: “I will now present the horrible, bleak reality that is teledildonics…” (Much laughter from audience.) Kyle runs—obviously nsfw—and is talking about the fact that basically if you put two people together in a game, they’re going to find a way to have sex… yup! (I think he just rattled off a list of possible new porn games and said “BMXXX”—ha!) Teledildonics is really a great word. In fact, he has the audience say it all together: “Teledildonics!” If you don’t already know, this is remote technological sexuality. I’m sure you are getting some kind of understanding from the dramatic picture you’re making in your head! But if you need a little bit more, there’s a perfectly safe Wikipedia entry on the subject.

At this point Kyle shows us many toys currently available, including the talking head vibrator, which I’ve already come across online… as I shake my head and chortle… There are many things that he shows us on slides on the big screen and the audience is having a great time.

Random Kyle quote: “I cleaned it REALLY WELL.” Kyle is incredibly charismatic and funny. I really enjoy listening to him!

And so we’re looking at interfaces—really bad interfaces! and Kyle is telling us some of his personal ideas for this whole concept and getting really excited and just talking up a storm! It’s great! One of the things that he says is that instead of using sliders, instead of matching something that’s going on in a movie, you come up with patterns! You can actually program a series of actions, and any end-user can program their own grooves. Plus, you can have buddy lists of people whose grooves you like! And these grooves are probably series’ of vibrations or movements or whatever the technology is doing to make you feel good.

And Kyle says, “Sometimes people ask me, ‘well Kyle, what about personalization?’ Fuck personalization, this is science, people!”

Apparently there’s a total-teledildonics patent that keeps us from using waveforms, specifically, so we have to use audio streams to operate these other toys. Audio toys, a stream that’s already available everywhere, it’s excellent!

So now Kyle shows us some more items—the Virtual Hole, yes, it’s actually called that, and he talks about its counterpart, the Virtual Stick. (I know). The VH is the silver bowling pin he held up earlier. And there’s so much more that I didn’t quite get all of, I was enjoying myself and listening and I just don’t type nearly as fast as they all can talk! Someone mentioned biometrics, how does biometrics fit into all of this? I think it was Violet who mentioned “The Toy,” which pairs with your phone over bluetooth.

Other perspectives: And Johanna was talking about a whole different perspective on the sex tech industry, that “Maybe your point isn’t climaxing—maybe it’s building some kind of intimate bond!” And she’s talking about just using this technology to be closer to your partner, or to better understand yourself, and not necessarily using it for masturbation or orgasm, because there are so many more useful applications that people forget to talk about.

Amanda is bringing up something that she feels comes up a lot, implicitly, in what the panelists are discussing; what is the difference between sex and masturbation? What roles do intimacy and orgasm play? What counts as sex? At this point the panelists look very loathe to answer this question, because it’s the end of the panel and this is a whole new can of worms, seriously.

Part of Cory’s response: One of the first things people want to talk about when we bring up the internet and sex is whether someone is online cheating. This is technology forcing people to rethink relationships, which in itself is positive—but generally the mainstream media always asks the least interesting questions (is it cheating, is internet porn bad, and so on). We’re guilty of thinking very narrowly about sex.

Part of Johanna’s response: And ultimately, regarding the “is it sex” question, there isn’t even a final answer—it’s between you and your partner. There’s a continuum between sex and not sex. We can’t cut a hard line. Sex isn’t separate from life—something that isn’t sex can suddenly turn into sex, and vice versa!

Part of Violet’s response: A lot of the people who are designing and marketing sex tech are making things that are destined to fail because they’re based on some sort of “hetero-normal” idea of what people are doing, when that isn’t necessarily what people are actually out there doing—she used a great example that I can’t remember well enough to put down here. This is a big thing she keeps coming back to and it’s really important to me because it links in to how we talk (or not) about sex.

The floor was opened up for questions, and here are some summaries of information…

Regarding the Sybian, which you can look up yourself if you aren’t familiar with… This thing costs thousands of dollars, because it actually works, there’s a lot of history and effort that was put into doing it right. The Sybian, Violet says, gets used in porn a lot, at, etc.; these are commercial practices. In practicality, she says, when she got a hold of one, “it sounded like an outboard motor in my apartment!” She said something entertaining along the lines of, I’m thinking, I’m not going near that thing! And one of the other panelists mentioned that the Thrillhammer is pretty much a Sybian with a souped up motor.

Someone mentioned a man named Crumb, who apparently draws his own pornography. I like this concept a lot and bet a lot of talented people do this very thing.

There was quite a lot more, and I did record the panel, so I may post more about this later. If you’ve read this far, thank you. :}

Take a look at…
~ Violet Blue
~ Cory Silverberg
~ Kyle Machulis
~ Johanna Brewer
~ Amanda Williams

Further notes…
Ya’ll already know how much I like Violet. But this whole panel was so enjoyable it was hard for me to keep taking notes—I just wanted to enjoy listening to all the fabulous people with the fabulous ideas and the intelligent discourse and the positive attitudes about sex. It was wonderful!

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