Isolation and loneliness are seen as the fault of technology when, on closer inspection, that same technology can bring us closer togetherby Kate Devlin / December 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
Video killed the radio star, and technology destroyed the relationship. Intimacy is dead. This is the story we’re being told: a world where our smart devices clamour for the consideration we should be showing our loved ones. But is that really the case?
Dystopian narratives about technology have persisted, from Plato’s concerns that writing would destroy memory down to the forecasted death of the novel due to dwindling attention spans in the television era. But in truth, while technology leads to social changes, those changes are not always negative and we, as humans, generally adapt well to them. Sex technology is not something to fear: instead we should embrace it.
Attitudes to sex have obviously altered since the days when a serious chunk of the population took the idea of chastity before marriage seriously. The western sexual revolution of the past 50 or so years has had a profound effect. Traditional notions of acceptability collapsed along with the ban on DH Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, when sex suddenly became unbuttoned. In Britain, three surveys known as the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) have taken place over the past 35 years. Natsal doesn’t just ask about sexual experiences, although that is the cornerstone of the survey. It also records information about sexual health, biology and drug use.
As might be expected, the surveys become more candid over the years. Participants are asked for, and disclose, an increasing amount of information. We do talk more openly about sex these days, and there’s one overriding contributing factor: the internet. For many marginalised sexual subculture groups, far from being a destroyer of intimacy, the internet is an important place of refuge, where one can forge connections with kindred spirits (or perhaps kindred kinks), strengthening self-identity. Where there is strength in numbers, there is increased visibility, and with increased visibility can come a movement for acceptance. Online dating has gone from being an embarrassment to becoming one of the most frequent and common ways of meeting a new partner.
The apps and social networking that bring people together are now so ubiquitous that we forget their importance as a way to combat loneliness, connecting us through messages, images and video. They can also connect us physically. Sex toys, once the domain of adult shops and hushed giggles, are enjoying an era of great inventiveness, thanks to the “Internet of Things.” They’ve gone smart: they can be linked to apps and controlled remotely. A person in one country can bring physical pleasure to their lover in another.
But it’s not confined to long-distance relationships, or—admittedly—to any sort of relationship at all. In the cam industry, where webcam models perform solo sex acts online for money, the sex workers can use sex toys linked to those of the paying viewer to provide them with a remote sexual experience. And yet such toys, known as teledildonics (a phrase coined in the early days of virtual reality) can also be used to bring couples closer together. As when, for example, a vibrator is paired remotely with a masturbation device such as a “Fleshlight,” a form of artificial vagina.
In a 2013 European-wide survey, YouGov found that 33 per cent of the 2,168 UK respondents had used a sex toy. Perhaps technology has swelled that figure, but it is tapping into something very human—and very old. In 2005, a 20cm long stone object, made around 28,000 years ago, was found in a cave in Germany. Having been carefully reassembled from 14 pieces of siltstone, there was no doubt about it: the etchings and shape make it clear that it was supposed to represent a penis. It was found in a layer of ash associated with the activities of modern (in an archaeological sense) humans. Archaeologists will argue about its purpose—“ritual” is always a possibility—but there’s no denying the form.
In the millennia since it was carved, the essential form of the sex toy has changed very little, but new materials and technologies are leading to new designs. Nowadays we have smart fabrics, soft plastics and all sorts of electronics that mean we can build more imaginative products. We can integrate movement and sound and touch; integrate responsive devices with our heart rates and our homes. There are a growing number of start-ups now focusing on smart sex toys, most of which wouldn’t look out of place as ornaments on a shelf.
Meanwhile, in tandem, the sex robots arrived. Long a sci-fi favourite, they were promised but never delivered: until now. Or, at least, soon, as currently it’s just a few prototypes that exist. “Robot” is a misnomer, though. These are human-like bodies that have emerged from the family of the sex doll: a substitute woman (for they are predominately in a female form), hypersexualised and pornified. None of them can stand up on their own. Some of them have animatronic parts. Some speak with pre-recorded responses, others with an artificial intelligence chatbot personality. They are impossible to mistake for a real person. With the announcement of the first prototypes came headlines of horror: “Scarily-real sex robots to replace women,” “Sex robots declared ‘DANGER to women and kids’ in horrifying calls for UK BAN,” and “Sex robots may literally fuck us to death.”
There have, then, been two distinct branches of development in sex tech: the smart sex toy, exploring new forms and materials; and the sex robot, the 21st-century sex doll, forever haunted by its blow-up past. The interesting future is in the space where these two separate paths converge. Move away from the idea of the pornified fembot and we also move away from the perpetuation of objectification. Extending smart sex toy development into more embodied forms bridges the gap: if you want to design a sex robot, why not pick the features that could bring the greatest pleasure? A velvet body, 10 arms to hold you, 20 breasts, three penises. Your mileage may vary. We are primed by hundreds of years of robot stories to expect a human-like artificial lover, yet we no longer expect our sex toys to represent realistic genitalia.
In 2016, Goldsmiths, University of London, ran the UK’s first sex tech hackathon. Or, at least, the first one open to the public. A hackathon—a portmanteau of hack (which means to build and repurpose things) and marathon—is a short-term computing development event, usually 24-48 hours in length, where participants collaborate in small groups to design and deliver a prototype piece of technology. There have been niche maker communities around sex technology for years, but they were quietly working on developing and building, aware that their work was not always seen as palatable. The proliferation of hackspaces that have emerged over the past five years have led to a new acceptance in pushing emerging technologies into new areas. The Goldsmiths’ hackathon saw 50 people from a wide range of backgrounds come together to prototype new forms of sex technology. Fourteen projects resulted, including soft robotic tentacles, theremin-style vibrators that could be controlled by mid-air hand motions, and responsive clothes for indicating consent.
Other such hackathons sprang up in Paris and New York. Sex tech companies got involved and shared their expertise. New connections formed. A year on, and a second hackathon at Goldsmiths saw the development of virtual reality sexual experiences playing with the illusion of inhabiting another body, and augmented reality sensuous scenarios paired with a shawl that activates sensors on your skin so that you can see and feel virtual rose petals as they touch you.
Technophobes imagine that such immersive technologies could displace real relationships, and leave individuals more isolated than ever. That thought plays on deep fears about loss of agency—of being made redundant by technology, and not just when it comes to jobs.
But in a more rounded and rational appraisal, the potential for good in applying technology to sex is incredible. That is as true in the dark corners of the sex industry, where software can help keep sex workers safe by sharing information, as it is in a medical context, where assistive products are being developed to enable people with disabilities to reach orgasm. There are many people who crave intimacy but who, for psychological as well as physical reasons, are unable to form those relationships.
Taboo should not stifle innovation. Any subjective feelings of discomfort should be weighed against the benefits, and discounted if it is getting in the way of something important. Isolation and loneliness are seen as the fault of technology when, on closer inspection, that same technology can bring us closer together: not just by linking us to loved ones across the globe, but by forming new communities, and by giving people a chance of experiencing the pleasure they were previously denied. Future intimacy is not a bleak and isolated vision but a network of connected people who want, as humans have always wanted, to be together.