Erotic Computing

Webster's Weekly, March 24, 1995


by Douglas Davis, Ph.D.

God dwells with Satan in the details.

Nine months, and 25 columns, into "erotic" "computing" I'm left with a feeling Garrison Keillor described some years ago in (I think) the first announcement that "A Prairie Home Companion" was ending -- the audience is already filing out but you feel you've got to tell them every thing you know for sure and you're following some guy into the parking lot, clutching his arm, saying, "No, really, it's a Web world after all." The result so far, in Keillor's case, has been failed Danish exile and a PHC knockoff in the Big Apple, then a return to the ambivalently loved Twin Cities and an annual Last Show.

Whither the World Wide Web? The class/race/ethnic spin on this problem is that very unusual people have built Webspace and the tools for navigating it. Nerd-English-speaking SAT-bright white males of a certain age. These kids used to turn into balding engineers with Bic pens in plastic pocket liners and a CV that featured their small piece of the Postit Note patent or some fillip of Cray OS design. Now they get quoted in the Sunday Times Business section or interviewed by Wired, and one of them owns more money than many countries south of the Equator.

The internal combustion engine seems to have worked its will on American society without much top-down understanding of what a suburban, Interstate-bound, Ronald MacDonald world would be like. Can we do better this time? The clinical/personality/applied psychologist of the near future will treat as data the electronic footprints left by the "subject"'s Web client as they walk the edge of the Cyber Sea.

The roar of the surf blends with, masks that of the traffic on 95. The 'comber walks a wobbly path along the waves' edge, chinos rolled to the knees and bare feet testing the border between icy wet and hot dry sand. He stops to pick up a jellyfish or a condom, crouches to study the alien form, flips it into the receding wave with a small shudder. The beach is deserted now, at dawn, except for a kid kicking a flaccid ball against the wall beneath the boardwalk and a couple of lovers stopped hand in hand in the distance to watch the sunrise. The buildings of the city rise behind the sleaze of the waterfront, and the higher stories are already catching the light.

Purple-footprint data lend themselves to unobtrusive designs, just as study of floor-polish-wear tells the museum manager that Matisse is hot and Monet cold. If each museum patron wore radioactive shoes with a distinctive geiger-counter signature the clinical psychologist could infer the subject's mood and predilections while the forensic psychologist could establish that contact with the suspect occurred at 16:27:50 by Bierstadt's "Storm in the Rocky Mountains."

The intelligence community figured out long ago that electronic banking would be the population management technology of the future; and the Fortune 1000 must now be sifting grepped data from their free Web sites for clues to the tastes of the Internet population. The lessons so far wouldn't have surprised old Sigmund: T&A in FTPdom, flame-fests in alt.this.n.that, washed down with copious O.J. from Time's news-page. But at the individual level we psychologists are just beginning to imagine the riches about to be bestowed. Counselor Troi learned the obvious about Ensign Barclay from his holodeck rendering of her. The Bynars' program did a more subtle read of Riker in creating Minuette; and Data and Moriarty have yet to work out their relationship. Let me lead you a few steps into the Garden of Forking Paths, then wander off on your own. I'll be here when you get back with some prose you may want to bookmark -- or not.

It seemed clear to me last June that I'd be preaching to the choir -- and I've found myself seasoning the columns with the kind of jargon that sent Doonsbury's preacher out the door when he tried to buy a PC in the early 80s ("I knew it. He doesn't speak English. Let's go."). As W2 goes on hiatus I'm planning the Fulbright sabbatical I called "Bringing the Networked Future to Morocco," and reflecting that that future may be still-born. Power Mac and Wintel systems disappear fast as you drive east on Lancaster into West Philly, and the school-kids of Zawiya are a long way from the worship of Sidi ROM. These heady first days of the Web may feel to our future selves like the images of arm-interlocked college students at 60s demonstrations, now that the big chill has set in.

I can't let myself believe that, though. I think we'll be meeting again in the Net, and that some day we'll look more like America, then more like the world.

the EC archive


Doonesbury Electronic Town Hall: Daily Dose: Rev. and Mike buy computer for peace newsletter. December 15, 1982.

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


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Copyright (C) Douglas Davis 1995. All rights reserved.