Erotic Computing

by Douglas Davis, Ph.D.

If Rhett can be made to stop and change his mind, if he can be Mickey Rourke to Kim Basinger's Scarlett, can this still be "Gone With the Wind"?

At the bottom of the massive staircase the dark man pauses, stands for a long moment, steadies his heavy, angry breathing. He turns his head, glances back up to the lighted top of the stairs, and a surprised look crosses his face. "Jesus, I still do give a damn!" Rotating, he springs in one fluid motion to the landing, pauses again and, his face broadening in a grin, bounds to the second story and disappears down the dimly lit hallway, to the ornate bedroom where Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler waits trembling in the ante-bellum four-poster bed, her long blond tresses spread across the satin pillows.

Waaaiiiit a minute! "Blond tresses?!" Ms. Leigh was a brunette last I looked. If Rhett can be made to stop and change his mind, if he can be Mickey Rourke to Kim Basinger's Scarlett, can this still be "Gone With the Wind"?

In the short run, if the Fortune 1000 view of the Digital Future prevails, subscribers to Time-Warner's interactive home data services will be offered -- along with e' and v-mail, home shopping in limitless virtual malls, and all the news that's fit to upload -- on-demand access to, say, 25,000 feature films. This vast trove of 20th-century pop-culture will needs be digitized first, so it can travel super-compressed over the improved bandwidths promised from cable, telephone ISDN, and optic pathways. And with industrial magicians providing the user-interface, it should be possible not only to scan the library for user-mood-appropriate genre, emotional tone, and glimpses of stocking but also -- before long -- to tinker with the content. Hence a new face for Scarlett and a post-war life in which she never does become Mrs. Ashley Wilkes.

It will make conversations about the Great Moments in Movies a little strained, e.g., "I loved the part where Rhett dashes back up the stairs and Kim/Scarlett did that incredible thing she does with her lips as she sits up in bed, backlighted in the white silk slip ..." And that's just the beginning. If Scarlett and Rhett can wear anyone's face or body, can behave in ways quoted from any of the other 24,999 films in the archive, why not be Scarlett/Rhett yourself? Why not get the whole shindig in tune with 90s racial and gender values? Why not do it in drag? Why not in Minnesota, for goodness sakes?

Jaron Lanier, the dreadlocked white guy -- interviews with whom all the slicks were publishing a couple of years ago -- spoke in one about VR technology enabling people to have "reality conversations," as they shaped an interactive multimedia environment through simultaneous use of VR goggles and "teledildonic" tactile-feedback devices. It's a titillating metaphor, but "conversation" suggests a shared vernacular, and language evolves in a community of speakers who develop expectations of each other's utterances and the meaning of each through years of interaction. Even borderline psychotic members of our society mostly use words when they talk to us, and "reality-testing" seldom breaks down to the extent that one fails to stop at a red light or place implicit faith in the laws of physics. Fifty years of society-wide VR access will produce social-psychological phenomena undreamed-of. As I've suggested before, the technology offers a real possibility of collecting all the data about each other's erotic data-use, but it makes today's social psychology seem a ludicrously ingenuous basis for writing the grant application.

The presumption behind commercial planning for the multimedia future seems to be that existing packages of images will continue to command the economic loyalties of a consuming public for whom Scarlett/Rhett/Gable/Leigh will continue to be billable goods, as if the 19th-century romance novel and the 20th-century feature film were essential manifestations of Homo Sapiens. The oral-culture products of most of our history (some evening, check out the ongoing street fair in Marrakech's jemaa al-fna -- not yet a Web page) were closer to rap or a campfire sing than to anything conceived by Cecil B.; and it's unclear any of these models give us much of a clue as to the leisure activities of people who can present any stimulus to any part of the body at will. Why should the feature film -- or even the music video -- make sense to a VR-reared generation? Why should anyone used to controlling the whole scene with a verbal command and a flip of the wrist or pelvis sit still for on-screen plot development, any more than they would for 900 pages of paperback text? All of us who talk the good game about 21st-century multimedia may just be whistlin' Dixie.

Next week: Woodstock recalled.

Douglas Davis, Ph.D. <>

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Copyright (C) Douglas Davis 1994. All rights reserved.