Pornography and Technology

0porndalex.jpgMy notes from Tina Lorenz’ talk at 23C3 in Berlin: Pornography and Technology.

I wanted to comment on what the presentation was like in general but Polas has done it already and i can only agree with just everything he has written (and will therefore remove from the title of my talks any term that might put off the audience, such as “art” or, well… “art”). I enjoyed the talk a lot. I just wondered if there was any point in blogging it because the content looks a bit like a wikipedia entry on, say, the History of erotic depictions but that doesn’t make it less fun, at least for me. ‘k, now the talk:

1. History of media until the birth of “modern porn”

Porn emerges with the first ability to abstract. Representation of sex first created for religion and later for arousal. Porn becomes mainstream only when the media is cheap enough to distribute sex representations widely. The cheaper the media the more porn copies can be distributed.

Around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type printing. Shortly after that erotic literature started to appear even if it was illegal to distribute or even to own it. The situation was quite different in Asia, they have a longer tradition of erotic representation and literature.

0jupijunon.jpgThe first porn engravings appeared in the 16th Century. I Modi was a kind of Kama Sutra, an illustrated book of 16 “postures” or sexual positions. Their objective was to arouse but it was also a social commentary on the situation of Catholic Italy at the time.

In 1839, Louis Daguerre invented the Daguerreotype, an early type of photograph in which the image is exposed directly onto a mirror-polished surface of silver bearing a coating of silver halide particles deposited by iodine vapor. It was the first commercially viable photographic process. However the material used was very heavy and required very long time of poses for the model of a portrait. No possibility to take any “action shot.”

The realism of photography made the authorities quite uneasy. So erotic photos or nude portraits were only authorised as “painter’s aids.”

The only way to reproduce a daguerreotype was to photograph them again which made them rare and priceless. Besides, they were quite fragile. The first erotic photographs and the first experimenters in stereo photography utilized daguerreotypes.


Stereoscopy made the technology more popular. Only problem was the rigid poses of the models.

William Fox Talbot patented processes which made it easier to reproduce photography and thus spread images to the masses. One of the patents shortened the posing time.

During 19th Century, the Postal Service became more reliable and safer to use internationally. Porn producers could then send erotic pictures to clients worldwide.

The Kinetoscope, developed by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson between 1889 and 1892, suddenly gave some movements to these images of erotic scenes. This early motion picture exhibition device was designed for short reels to be viewed individually through the window of a cabinet housing its components. It created the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter. Viewers could listen to the soundrack through headphones. It was developed as an attraction for fun fairs.

0ostenoscope.jpg0carmentcita.jpgKinetoscope and Carmencita

While reading the wikipedia entry for the kinetoscope, i found out that shortly after its launch came the first recorded instance of motion picture censorship. The film in question showed a performance by the Spanish dancer Carmencita who “communicated an intense sexuality across the footlights that led male reporters to write long, exuberant columns about her performance.” When Kinetoscope movie of her dance, shot at the Black Maria in mid-March 1894 was screened in the New Jersey resort town Asbury Park, the town’s founder, James A. Bradley was “so shocked by the glimpse of Carmencita’s ankles and lace that he complained to Mayor Ten Broeck. The showman was thereupon ordered to withdraw the offending film, which he replaced with Boxing Cats.”

Lorenz later explained that early movies were not an attraction on their own. They were part of a circus show or screened at the end of a theatre play representation. Reels had to be bought, there wasn’t any effective rental system.0satrtyu.jpg

The first erotic films date back to the beginning of the last century. Given the usually clandestine nature of the filming and distribution, many of them are lost. Most of what remains has been archived at the Kensey Institute for Sex Research. Europeans were pioneers in erotic films. She mentioned the first German erotic movie: Am Abend in 1910. Germans became quickly known for their fetish movies. And France “of course” (that’s how she put it) was fast to jump on the erotic movie bandwagon.

The first erotic movies were also called “stag films”. Their main audience was made of men who belonged to closed societies. As the entry fees to belong to those private societies were high, only rich men got to watch the films. The films were also shown in brothels to arouse punters. The stag films didn’t have any real plot. The novelty of seeing naked women was enough to make the gents loose their head.

The first erotic movies were better produced than shooted which might indicate that they were done by professional producers from Hollywood who wanted to make extra money on the side. Narrative elements were then introduced to eliminate repetition.

Erotic movies reveal a lot about the culture that produced them.

For example, Free Ride, believed to be the oldest surviving porn film made in the US (and haha! directed by Will B. Hard and A. Wise Guy), was made at a time when cars started to be “affordable”, they were a symbol of freedom.

In times of war, while women were working in factories and their men were soldiers, erotic movies depicted women as passive and submissive. They looked bored during the intercourse.

The introduction of sound allowed for the development of more complex plots. “Yes, there ARE plots in porn!” explained Lorenz.

The narrative brought even more morale and references to the culture of the day. According to Lorenz, pornography has always been more interesting than sex to get to know about our world.

1968: Denmark is the first country to legalize pornography. Copies were quickly smuggled out of the country.
1969: First sex expo “Sex 69”
1970: first modern porn, Mona, the Virgin Nymph that was the first porn film with a plot that received a general theatrical release in the U.S.

Porn wanted to go mainstream and merge with the Hollywood industry. So they increased the budget, put more effort in writing better plots and hired professional technicians.

2. Definition of pornography

Difficult to define. What is obscene and perverse for one person, say a feminist, might be acceptable for a philosopher. A common criteria is that porn seeks to arouse customers. But then again, what is arousing for you might be disgusting for me.

Lorenz believes that porn has to fill some technical criteria:
– porn is media-bound. It’s all about the layer of abstraction;
– porn is fictional, imaginative, iconic. Porns are staged, have a scenario. Grey area: house porn;
– porn is produced for an audience. If my friend organises an orgy and films, edits and credits it but doesn’t show it to anyone else than the “actors” and their close friends, the degree of abstraction is lessened. But if the video is uploaded online and seen by net surfers who don’t know any of the actors, then it becomes a porn movie. With an informed audience, it can even become art.

VHS vs Betamax. An urban legend wants that the format war was won by VHS because of porn. It fact the battle might have been won by something as simple as the length of the tape (2 hours for VHS and 1 hour for Betamax.) Porn adopted VHS to lower production costs. In its quest to go mainstream, the porn industry wanted to make feature films and thuus needed longer tapes. VHS allowed people to watch porn at home. They didn’t have to face the humiliation of buying tickets to see a smut movie.

The rise of the internet has allowed for an even larger and swifter distribution.

Stats: 60% porn in p2p now. In 2006, about 1% of random sample websites were sexy.

0wiiibrat.jpg3. Teledildonics and Interactive Porn

Second Life: avatars programmed to have virtual sex. Sex in Second Life happens through a combination of poses, animations, scripts, and typing. The main ingredient is known as pose balls, objects with scripts in them that trigger a user’s avatar to play certain animations or poses. For sex, poseballs are placed close together, with titles above them that say the position the user will take.

Just out when she made the talk: Wiibrator, a Python application that interfaces the Wii’s Wiimote and the PS2’s Trancevibrator.

Lorenz concluded by saying that we’ll see more and more of these gadgets that mediate virtual and real life sexual activities. “And remember, porn is not bad!”