Erotic Computing

EC 2.1 (9-23-94)


by Douglas Davis, Ph.D.
A question in yer nerves is lit
And y'know there is no answer fit
T'keep it in yer mind and not fergit
That it is not he, or she, or them, or it
That you belong to.

Dylan


As we start a second volume of Webster's, I imagine my reader(s) asking, "Why 'erotic'?" Here's some preparation for an answer, where the little ones are concerned.

The Average Age of the Internet User is less than half my own, and falling as more and more secondary and elementary schools acquire access and establish Web pages. We begin to see Web pages created by primary schools and, while the teacher's hand is strongly evident in the layout and content of those I've examined, the artwork and some of the words of the fourth-graders is beginning to appear. More will come, and it's these little people by whom I'm especially interested now -- without preconceptions or fears of the new gizmos, and with a story to tell about how the world looks when you're just getting hold of it. For them the icon-based, multi-media, networked Mac or Windows box is not a computer. It's the ultimate toy, the no-longer-imaginary playmate, an erotic object.

Toddlers, the psycholinguists tell us, have a language acquisition device (LAD) built-in. It matures over the first several years of life, and it stays capable of giving its owner unaccented control of any human language until the age of seven or eight. The LAD needs a functioning social environment saturated with linguistic information (semantic and syntactic) to perform its magic, and then the LADed child of normal intelligence will become a "native" speaker of Arabic, Berber, or French; or, as in parts of Morocco, all three. The apparent complexity of the target language to adult linguists or tourists is relatively unimportant to the neophyte speaker; and if child/LAD is confronted with two, or even three languages, it/he/she will learn them all. There are temporary difficulties as LAD sorts out conflicting information from multiple discursive environments, and these are exacerbated if the two languages with which LAD is confronted are from different linguistic families -- e.g., Indo-European (French), Semitic (Arabic), and "Hamitic" (Berber) -- but the multilingual child will subsequently learn other languages much more readily.

I want to push an analogy between language acquisition and computer-skill acquisition. It's a bad analogy in several obvious ways:

  1. The tricks needed to communicate with a computer are highly variable across hard' and software platforms.
  2. Even a keyboard virtuoso is probably more aware of the rules required for program execution than are speakers of natural languages most of the time.
  3. And the surrounding community of native-speaker/geeks is still communicating mostly in English (or whatever) even as they trade email and files.

On the other hand ...

  1. An experienced programmer seems to deal much of the time with source-code/screen-image relationships without having to consciously think each through.
  2. Touch-typists on IRC chat seem to have their minds on the content of the message and the assumed reaction of the recipient rather than the mechanics of key-finding.
  3. And a kid at Nintendo/Sega is using body-language rather than conscious joystick-manipulation to control his character.

In any case, for the most computer-fluent of our citizens the information-processing device is a tool whose use requires little conscious control, i.e. is largely transparent to thought. And when a human being, of whatever size, learns to use a tool for expressive and communicative purposes, that tool will have erotic potential, as Papa Freud has taught us.

My own thinking about these matters was partly shaped by two classic discussions of kid-computer interacton, Seymour Papert's Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas (Basic Books, 1980) and Sherry Turkle's The second self: Computers and the human spirit (Simon and Schuster, 1984). Highly recommended.

Next week: laptop dreaming.


Douglas Davis, Ph.D. <ddavis@haverford.edu>


About the author ...

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