How Pornography Saved Civilization

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Why you should care

Because, like it or not, you have pornographers to thank for the vast majority of your non-adult entertainment too.

In his short story “I Remember Babylon,” first published by Playboy in 1960, science-fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke imagined — five years before the launch of telecommunications satellites and decades before on-demand adult videos — a scenario in which Soviet-Sino forces have conspired to brainwash Americans by broadcasting a steady stream of propaganda and porn into their living rooms.

“For the first time in history, any form of censorship’s become utterly impossible,” the fictional adman turned communist agent explains. “The customer can get what he wants, right in his own home. Lock the door, switch on the TV set — friends and family will never know.”

Clarke’s prediction about porn consumption was eerily on the mark, except that rather than a communist takeover of the airwaves, the pornography industry — for better or worse — has fundamentally transformed communications technology, giving rise to a connected world in which censoring, undemocratic regimes like China find it increasingly difficult to control the thoughts of their citizens.

Putting aside any objections to the content itself, it is hard to overstate the gargantuan role that porn has played in driving several key technological advancements. Like war, another long-running and controversial human industry, porn is ever present, demand driven and very profitable. According to one estimate, the adult-film industry generated more than $13 billion in U.S. revenue in 2014, compared with Hollywood’s $8 billion. And it is that level of demand that has spurred on enterprising pornographers and helped bankroll nascent technologies.

The desire to consume pornography with more privacy and less effort has been a driving force behind communications technology.

As Patchen Barss tastefully reveals in The Erotic Engine, sex has fueled human creativity and commerce from prehistoric times. You may not have seen it on the Discovery Channel, but those cave walls in Europe decorated with drawings of bison and deer hunters also feature pictures of breasts, buttocks and giant, erect phalluses. Of course, the catch with those pictures — along with the erotic scenes lining brothel walls in Pompeii or the Konark Sun Temple in India — is that they require a personal visit from the would-be porn consumer. Which is one reason that in subsequent centuries, the desire to consume pornography with more privacy and less effort became a driving force behind communications technology.

One such technological landmark, Gutenberg’s printing press, may have produced more prayerbooks than pornographic engravings, but it proved that an industry devoted to porn creation could thrive and that technology in turn could influence porn by lowering the costs of entry to both consumers and creators. Flash-forward — past the erotic French Enlightenment novels — to 1839, when Louis Daguerre invented still photography, hailed by some, says Barss, as “the single most important event in the history of pornography.” Consumers and pornographers immediately recognized the potential of the visual medium, and the large profits generated by X-rated images attracted scores of new producers, willing to circumvent legal restrictions and social stigma and invest in refining the medium.

The same would be true in the 20th century with the adult-film industry — clustered in Southern California and raking in huge profits by the 1970s, when Deep Throat grossed more than $50 million — and with adult magazines, which had cornered 20 percent of the magazine market by the mid-1980s. But it is in the past few decades, says Barss, beginning with the VCR, that the porn industry really stepped into the tech driver’s seat.

First-generation VCRs were expensive, but porn consumers were willing to pay for the privacy, creating an enormous market and making up half of all videocassettes sold in the U.S. in the late 1970s. This pattern, in which porn consumers were willing to try new technology and pay a premium for it would repeat itself, supporting the expansion of new technologies as they gained traction during what Barss calls their early “pornographic years.”

Pay-per-view cable and satellite TV channels became widely available after pornographers introduced subscription services in hotels and digital networks. Similarly, pornographers were the pioneers behind Internet-streaming technology, peer-to-peer sharing and e-commerce functions like credit card verification and billing systems. Most important for the general public and all the film and television we now stream onto our computers, porn is responsible for growing bandwidth on the Internet. Even for those unfamiliar with the world of porn, according to Barss, “it is now easy to go online and be blissfully unaware that … the infrastructure that makes it possible to watch television … [and] all the other bandwidth-hogging … activities of the modern Internet, were created to serve the needs of the pornography industry.”

A great deal is made in this information age about how improving communications technology has enhanced the spread of information and, in the process, helped thwart censorship, undermine tyranny and connect humans across borders, real and digital. With so much of this technology having been reliant on pornographic uses to gain traction, it is no exaggeration to say that pornography has played a key role in expanding democracy, free thought and everything that goes with the unfettered flow of information.

If you want to change the world, it appears, you may want to consider holding off on the soldiers and lawmakers and send in the perverts and pornographers instead.

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