Erotic Computing

EC 1.5 (7-6-94)

by Douglas Davis, Ph.D.

In which the voyeurism of the psychologist becomes increasingly apparent,
and the compelling strangeness of the car/computer analogy is articulated.

It felt a little risky/risqué to include with last week's column a screen snapshot, at the edges of which some of my desktop icons -- and of the photograph comprising the desktop itself -- could be seen. What would a study of virtual desktops -- contrasting male with female, office with home, work with play -- reveal? My image of peering over the shoulder of the guy at the console -- of time-sampling his keyboard behavior -- is the perennial psychologist/voyeur's fantasy; but LAN technology and software like PC-Anywhere or Timbuktu make the collection of such data a merely ethical issue. Would we be surprised to learn that Fortune 1000 companies, government agencies, and software designers already compile such information? As a prelude to such a study, I've begun gatheriing screen images from friends and colleagues -- but I realize the limitations of these data, without the accompanying fantasies. ...

Or even the other software processes running in background. I recall hearing of a game for the Apple ][ that allowed the player to pause instantly by striking the letter "s" (for Supervisor), which caused the game-screen to be replaced by a banal spreadsheet image.

What was the fellow at the keyboard looking at the moment before his partner came into the room? Is she so distressed because she caught a glimpse of something shocking? Is the control he exercises over his personal system motivated in part by his inability to control her? If so, is he aware of this function of the computer?

The recurrent themes in much of the discussion of gender differences in attitudes toward computing include not only the assumption of greater male interest and self-styled competence, but of control over the content of the screen as itself erotically charged. It's not clear how one would prove this to a neophyte Webster, but the stories we collected in response to the picture frequently seemed to be toying with the idea that the foreground woman and the background computer were somehow in apposition, that she and it were competitors for his affection. Indeed, that's what the cartoonist seems to have intended, since the original image had her thought bubble filled with the words, "Oh no, I can't believe it! This, a stupid machine, has come between us!"

If cars have served similar erotic functions for past generations of male enthusiasts, this is probably in part because the vehicle lends itself to phallic imagery -- surging through space in response to pressure on the gas pedal, responding to every movement of the steering wheel -- and in part because the transportable living space permitted couples a privacy and environmental flexibility before unknown. How many first sexual relationships were consummated within the constraints of front-seat and steering-wheel? At first blush the comparison of a Saturday night parked in the river bottoms with a date and a personal computing system affording only keyboard, pointing device, and what images the software can manipulate seems absurd.

Next week: ...

Douglas Davis, Ph.D. <>

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