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Arse Electronica, "Sex-Related Interfaces:" well, that was a waste of my time - Elf M. Sternberg
Arse Electronica, "Sex-Related Interfaces:" well, that was a waste of my time
Earlier this year, a convention entitled Arse Electronica was held in San Franciso. The purpose of the convention was to describe the way sex and technology intermingle, with surveys of past human/tech interactions, the state of the art, and predictions about the future. AE was kind enough to put all of their material on-line so that the public could listen to the presentations.

I listened last night to "Sex-Related Interfaces," a subset of a presentation called "Make It So" by Nathan Shedroff, in which Shedroff and Chris Noessel discuss a survey of designs found in fiction that show how technology influences the way human beings have sex. Their material covered three distinct categories: augmented matchmaking, augmented coupling, and sex with machines.

All of which are interesting categories. Shedroff and Noessel completely blew their material, however, by doing all of the footwork themselves and using only material from movies and television. Noessel even went so far as to say that they considered animation, but animation was too low-resolution to have anything worth presenting. If there was anything in books, they hadn't considered it.

Although I was less than a quarter of the way into a presentation, and I did ultimately listen to the whole thing, I have to say that, right there, most of my interest in the presentation evaporated.

The presentation beyond that was completely predictable. Star Trek's holodeck for masturbation. The roulette wheel of available females from Logan's Run. The Buffybot. There were some cute moments, like when Noessel praised Joss Whedon for depicting sex'droids as "tools for the immature."

I have a problem with Noessel's analysis of the Buffybot. The purpose of every techonological advance in this arena is to smooth out the rough spots, make sex better or easier, and deny us the "maturing" experience of difficult sex. Noessel's analysis is anti-Kassian, which is good, but to denigrate it is to denigrate the human tradition in its entirety.

But beyond that, I have a problem with Shedroff's dismissal of anything outside of a visual medium. Shedroff at one point complains that most presentations of technological advances in the erotic sphere are wholly physical: about making the mechanics of sex better, about making the physical sensations stronger, last longer, be done with more cleanliness and efficiency. It's about the surface stuff and none of the messy connectivity of humanity underneath. Well, what did he expect to get when his chosen medium was the most facile, most about the surface, least interested in the underneath? Television and movies are not well-equipped to give us a serious look into the inner lives of characters, and indy studios don't have the budgets or the interest to make SF movies.

Shedroff is a designer, a surface kind of guy. He's all about the design of personal things, and how they make us change. He wants to see these things and ask how they influence us. But by ignoring books, Shedroff misses the most important science fiction of the day. Shedroff understands where the cell-phone came from, but somehow missed the waterbed, the waldo, the taser, swarming robots, and e-ink, all of which appeared in popular books long before they ever made it onto video screens or into homes.

I've written more interesting stories about technology-mediated matchmaking, augmented interactions, and lots of lots of love-bots, than has ever appeared on any screen large or small. If Shedroff is really interested in how these things shape human beings, he's not going to get far watching the tube. Predictions about how people interact with robots, even (or especially) in bed are the province of SF writers and will be for some time. Matchmaking via Craigslist or Manhunt is more interesting that most of what we've seen on the television screen. Books such as Peter Watts' Blindsight, Karl Hansen's Dream Games, and Charlie Stross's Halting State show us much more vividly how technology will ultimately make, or break, our humanness.

Because of the need for a mass audience to justify the expense of camera, crew, and actors, television and movies will always be less interesting, less forward-looking, and less challenging than literature. Ignoring it because it doesn't meet your paradigm is laziness on the part of the researcher.

Current Mood: annoyed annoyed
Current Music: Final Conflict, The Janus

4 comments or Leave a comment
mundens From: mundens Date: November 20th, 2008 05:15 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, fully agree.

Just finished Midori's Master Han's Daughter on the train, and even that small tome has more ideas mixing sex and tech than most films. Some of which, by the sounds of things, might blow those presenter's minds.

Did they even mention Barbarella or Lex I wonder?
(Deleted comment)
satyrblade From: satyrblade Date: November 20th, 2008 06:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
The "couldn't find" and ANIMATION that depicts what they were talking about? Have they never heard of anime? (Or even of the film Heavy Metal...?)

And between Photoshop, Poser, magazines, video, contraception and the Internet, recent technology has changed sexuality in radical ways that have nothing to do with tactile sensations or Buffybots.

From: chrisnoessel Date: January 20th, 2009 05:00 am (UTC) (Link)

Hello from one of the speakers

Hey Elf. A friend of me pointed me to your post, and I thought I’d reply directly. This is Chris, one of the guys who presented. Sorry to hear you thought your time was wasted, but I have some responses to your post and a question.

First, a clarification. I think we mention it near the beginning, but to be explicit, our interest is in surveying interfaces in scifi. (Even with a little nod to Ellison’s definition of that term.) Science fiction is a huge genre, and we appreciate the dismay that a lot of fans express that we’ve focused on television and movies. But for there to be an interface, we need to see detail that just won’t show up in books. So written scifi, for all of its insight and foresight and powerful storytelling, is out. Other authors, tackling more abstract topics in science fiction would be remiss if they left out the story form, but for us it makes sense.

And in hand-drawn media like graphic novels and cel-frame animation, we can’t count on much consistency in interface between depictions, so that’s out. (@antonia_tiger and satyrblade, that’s what we mean by “low fidelity.”) In contrast, 3D animation is the one animated genre in which it takes effort to change interfaces between shots, and so there is something consistent to evaluate. Manga is increasingly using 3D animation, and so we’ll likely include more of that as we continue to expand the survey. But we’re not there, yet. (It would have been nice to have some clips of the gynoids from Ghost in the Shell II.)

So as you can see, the choice of media isn’t laziness on our part, but necessity borne of our chosen focus.

Some other things from your original post.

You’d bemoaned that we were doing our own research. We have to do our own research primarily because it’s where the insights occur to us, but also because it’s time-consuming stuff to review movies and TV shows, screen cap, organize, tag, put in the online database, and then create the write ups. We’re not rich and don’t have money to pay others to do it for us, so that leaves us to do the work.

Regarding the BuffyBot, I hope it’s clear that we’re not making value judgments ourselves. When I note that Spike is using the bot to satisfy his own unrequited love and lust in an immature way, I’m restating the problem that Joss has provided in the story. We have no interest in judging sex technology or the users of sex technology. If we had, you can be sure we would have heard about it from the Arse Elektronika audience. In fact, we’re fans. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have presented at this particular conference.

A last note regards your mention of the talk as predictable. As a fiction writer, one of your goals is to produce something that is fundamentally new, so it’s easy to understand why this is a criterion for you. But our work in this case falls closer to the job of a media critic, i.e. to survey and comment on a few parts, but mostly the whole. For these reasons, much of this talk should be a bit predictable: things that the audience has seen before. Our hope is that the insights are gained by taking a step back and asking what do we see when we look at all of this together? You guys on this forum are far more hardcore about your science fiction than our audience of interaction designers, so it’s little surprise that you left wanting more. I hope that helps contextualize our talk in a way that makes it easier to understand why it may have felt unsatisfying to you.

We’re re-presenting this material at SxSW in March, so I’m eager to hear any additional thoughts you have. We love hearing from science fiction fans who know more about the genre than us. Are there any particular movies or television shows you didn’t hear in that list? Or topics you think are worth discussing? Also, I tried to find reference to the Kass* in "anti-Kassian," but I couldn't. What's this in reference to? I'd love to learn more.

P.S. I'm kind of disappointed that I found this post with so little time before the next conference. Don't be afraid to email speakers your thoughts directly so they have a chance to engage in a little dialogue and benefit from your criticisms.

4 comments or Leave a comment