Porn industry, the Internet innovation engine we (prefer to) ignore

Sometimes ago I wrote a long article for L’Espresso (in Italian) on the amazing and mostly underestimated role of Porn Industry in the development of Internet and its technologies. The same technologies and services we use everyday when we start a videochat , watch a video via streaming or check-in on services like Foursquare.

patchenbarss300That piece wouldn’t be possible without an enlightening chat with Patchen Barss, a canadian journalist who has written about science, technology and culture for almost 20 years. In the following interview, the author of “The Erotic Engine“, describes “the powerful influence of pornography on advances in mass communication”.

enjoy.

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Mr. Barss, let’s start explaining why and how the Porn industry can be defined as the “erotic engine” powering (among others things) the development of internet technologies.

It’s easy to forget how terrible Internet technology was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Expensive, unreliable connections, complicated command-line interfaces and weird connection protocols. A million things could go wrong, and even when it all worked, it was painfully slow and glitchy. Looking back, it’s difficult to believe anyone stuck with the technology long enough for it to improve.

The people who put in the work to make the Internet go in those early days often did so because the reward was pornography – first text, then images, then video. Pornography created the demand for Internet access, and also created demand for higher speeds, more reliable connections, and better interfaces. Many estimates suggest that sexual content represented as much as 80 percent of traffic on the pre-World-Wide-Web Internet.

Does this apply everywhere or is it just a US phenomenon?

Online pornography usage statistics vary from country to country, but there is no doubt that pornography had a global influence on technological development.

Is this influence still working today, when porn actors are adopting web2.0 technologies to disintermediate porn companies and sell their “products” by themselves?

Pornography has its greatest influence on new technologies – it was more influential over the early internet than today’s online sphere. Once a technology becomes fast, familiar and easy to use, the mainstream tends to take over and push pornography to the margins. This, to some degree has happened to the Internet – obviously there is still a huge pornographic presence online, but there’s now much more of everything else.

You touch on a good point, though – today’s Internet doesn’t represent the end of technological evolution. As new communications channels evolve – Web 2.0, haptics, virtual worlds – pornography and sexual content continue to exert their influence. There will always be new forms of communication that are as unfamiliar and weird as the Internet once was, and the early adopters of such technologies will almost certainly use them for sexual purposes.

What are the most notable internet technologies we owe to Porn industry?

I’ll name three. The least sexy is bandwidth – demand for more and higher quality pornography drove demand for a faster Internet. The push to move from pornographic text to images to video led individuals and companies to upgrade and upgrade, building the infrastructure that would allow the Internet as we know it to exist.

Pornographers also pioneered e-commerce. The Internet began with the American military and spread through universities, but it was commercialized by pornographers. They worked out both the technology of secure online transactions, and the business practices that would make people feel safe making purchases on-line. So, without pornographers’ innovations, there might be no online banking, no eBay and no Amazon.

Pornographers also developed the technology to stream video online – long before YouTube or NetFlix existed. As with the commercial Internet, the media-rich Internet that mainstream audiences know and love owes a great debt to the technological advances that came from the pornographic world.

How these technologies developed within Porn industry are then adopted by companies other online markets? 

It’s really interesting how technology moves from the pornographic margins to the mainstream. Basically, pornography producers and consumers are early adopters, people who are willing to put in the effort and take a chance on a new technology that will allow them to buy, sell, steal, share or trade sexual content. But while pornography might be the initial reason why they adopt the technology, it isn’t the only reason. Those early adopters also become the first market for non-pornographic applications. They are comfortable with the technology, and use it for multiple reasons. As the technology improves, the balance shifts so that there are more and more people using the technology for non-pornographic reasons as the mainstream market grows.
One of the most interesting things about this pattern (which is repeated time and time again with many technologies over hundreds of years) is that once the technology is truly mainstream, it’s pornographic origins are usually scrubbed from the history. People forget, or never learn, that their favorite smartphone or website is built on technology that was once primarily the purview of pornography enthusiasts.

Is there an ethical dilemma with the way Internet thrives thanks to Porn industry money and need to innovate?

The fact that pornography has an accelerating effect on technological development doesn’t change the fact that pornography is generally sexist, exploitative and often predatory. So in this sense, it makes many people, including me, somewhat uncomfortable to fully understand the origins of the latest communications gadgets. (Since I wrote The Erotic Engine, I experience a walk through an electronics shop very differently than I used to – I reckon about 80 percent of modern consumer electronics owe a debt to the pornographic world.)

I think the real ethical problem is pretending that this relationship doesn’t exist. When I wrote the book, some of the reaction I got from people was, “I never thought about this. I don’t like to think about it, but I see how it’s true.” That strikes me as an honest answer. But I’m not the first to write on the subject, and I think that people who work in and around media have to adopt a stance of “willful ignorance” not to acknowledge the role of the pornography industry. I know it’s not easy, but I think it’s important to recognize the reality, however uncomfortable it might be.

Can you name porn entrepreneurs who gave a more significant contribution to the Internet growth?

This is tricky. Most of the people I met in the industry weren’t tech visionaries or super geniuses. They were just people working in a marginal industry who were forced to experiment and take risks just to survive – the technological advance was much more a product of their marginalization than any sort of vision. That said, I interviewed some very business savvy entrepreneurs. Jenna Jameson turned herself from a porn star into a mainstream brand by staying one technological step ahead. Ilan Bunimovitz, CEO of Private Media Group, got rich embracing the VCR, online databases, the “long tail” business model, affiliate marketing and streaming video – all before the mainstream got on board.

In your book you talk about a relation between “passionate love” and Internet adoption from a mass audience…

Ah. This is the most interesting thing to come out of my research. People tend to think that pornographers embraced the internet for its privacy and anonymity. While this is true in many cases, at least as powerful a driver were people who found they could make connections with others through this new technology in ways they never could before. On BBS’s, in chat rooms, on USENET, in MUDs, and elsewhere online, people met, fell in love, and created unimaginable volumes of erotic and pornographic material.

So, the Internet wasn’t just built by buyers and sellers of pornography – it was also built by people creating erotic material for one another. (This still goes on in everything from “sexting” to relationships in virtual worlds like Second Life.) A huge driving force was the incredible power the Internet gave people to connect romantically, passionately, and sexually with other users.

2 pensieri su “Porn industry, the Internet innovation engine we (prefer to) ignore

  1. Pingback: » PEOPLE YOU MAY KNOW: Fake Identity & Cognitive Infiltration in Social Media | LOUDCANARY

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