BOB GARFIELD: When we consider sex and the media, we should keep in mind that whenever there is a breakthrough in communications technology, pornography seems to play a pivotal role. There are many implications here for the broader issues of morality, sexuality and censorship, but to our future letter-writers we say in advance: we won't be addressing them right now. Instead, we offer a brief history of pornography as an engine of technological progress.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This month humanity crossed a communications Rubicon. Scientists at the MIT Touch Lab in Boston sent a physical sensation across the ocean to another scientist in London who was wearing a glove attached to a computer. It was brief -- a flickering in the fingertip --but it was real. When we called the scientists, they bristled at the very idea that their achievement could have a sexual application. But history suggests that communications technology and pornography are as closely linked as a hand in a glove. Erotic engravings were traded throughout the ancient world, but it wasn't much of a business. Being that the business of pornography is business, it had to wait for the printing press.
JONATHAN COOPERSMITH: After Gutenberg in the 1500s, you actually have the first known writer making his living by writing pornography, though he might call it erotica then, because it was still fairly expensive. A gentleman by the name of Pietro Aretino.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathan Coopersmith, who teaches at Texas A&M, conducted exhaustive research into the matter for his paper called "Pornography, Technology and Progress." After movable type, he says the next great leap came centuries later with the development of photography. Now you didn't even have to know how to read.
JONATHAN COOPERSMITH: An example: 1874, the London police raid a pornographer and they seize 130,248 obscene photographs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yowsa.
JONATHAN COOPERSMITH: That's a huge amount of paper that's being consumed. In that sense, pornography's helping the distribution -- helping the economic viability of photography.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And 20 years later, the pictures began to move. Imagine the viabilities! [MUSIC FROM A PORN MOVIE UP AND UNDER]
JONATHAN COOPERSMITH: In 1894, you have the first public movie. 1896, two years later, you have the first pornographic film. And ever since then you've had more pornographic films produced than non-pornographic films. [SOUNDS FROM A PORN MOVIE UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1977, the very first pre-recorded videotape to go on sale was pornographic. It took another year for a non-porn tape to hit the market, and how about those clumsy camcorders - those expensive, unreliable, early VCRs. Who bought those? Do it yourselfers, says Coopersmith, which explains why even the earliest models had a low-light adjuster.
JONATHAN COOPERSMITH: If you think about it, there are very few children's birthday parties which are really done with very low levels of light.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are a couple of theories for why Sony Betamax, the superior video technology, lost the battle against the VHS format developed by JVC. For one thing, Sony was slow to license its technology, but perhaps just as important, pornographers preferred the cheaper, more convenient VHS format which drove the market for tapes and players.
BRIAN MICHAELS: A lot of new technology goes through what's been referred to as "the porn phase" because it's kind of a proving ground for technology.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brian Michaels is currently marketing a handy new service called "Pocket Joy," which we'll get to in a moment.
BRIAN MICHAELS: You don't have to get big sponsorships to sponsor your new technology in order to keep your business afloat while you kind of prove it out. Instead you put adult contents on it; people pay a premium for that adult content; and that's enough to sustain your business while you build a better business base for other types of content.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: There's certain experiences you can have in the world commercially that are free.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Author Douglas Rushkoff writes on culture and the internet.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: You know, you can get free Saltines; you can get a free sample of laundry detergent; you know, you can get a free - maybe a picture of a woman's breasts - but when push comes to shove, when you're going to want to see real sex or get liquor or have a vice experience, you end up having to pay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For a long time, sex was the only commodity that sold on the internet, and while other services continue to crash and burn, pornography profitably smolders on. Ask former stripper, now internet mogul Danni Ashe. When she got sick of the road, she took to the net. She had great pictures to sell, and other models joined her. Now she's a multi-millionaire. She remembers when streaming video was new and bulky and porn sites developed their own technology.
DANNI ASHE: The adult entertainment industry was the first to use streaming JPEG push video, which was video that worked in web, in the browser and didn't require a plug-in. I think as an industry we tend to jump in a little bit faster and tweak the technology and try to get it to work faster.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And in any case, says Brian Michaels of Pocket Joy, which I said we'll get to in a minute, consumers of porn tend to be more patient than the average Joe.
BRIAN MICHAELS: I would say that a user would spend about 30 seconds trying to figure out how to view a clip from a baseball game, whereas they may spend 2 or 3 minutes trying to figure out how to view a video clip of an erotic situation. And then they're going to go and tell all of their friends how they did it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I asked Danni Ashe what she saw as the next frontier in high tech porn.
DANNI ASHE: There's a lot of talk about third generation wireless stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cell phones.
DANNI ASHE: Yes. About broadband cell phones, because you'll have all of that privacy and access that the internet afforded you, but now you'll have mobility. So you don't have to sit in front of your desktop to watch the material. You can take it anywhere you'd like to be or anywhere that's more comfortable for you.
BRIAN MICHAELS: PocketJoy.com is a wireless internet web page delivering full-color erotic images and jokes to the internet-capable mobile phone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I told you we'd get to it. Brian Michaels says the service is up now, and when the technology to deliver moving pictures arrives, Pocket Joy will be the first to use it.
BRIAN MICHAELS: Sure! We're talking about one minute dirty movies, 30 second dirty movies, five minute dirty movies -- things of all types.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pictures on film, on the net, on the phone -- where does that leave radio on the technological frontier? Satellite radio is offering all sorts of new formats to specially equipped cars. Like basic cable, you have to pay a fee. But now, XM Satellite Radio is testing the waters with Playboy Radio for an additional cost of 2.99 a month. It will be the first premium service ever offered on satellite radio. [CLIP OF PLAYBOY RADIO]
WOMAN: Did you get laid last night?
WOMAN: She's such a ***.
WOMAN: Here's, here's one rule of thumb -- don't ever lie to our listeners.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steve Gavenas is executive vice president for programming for XM Satellite Radio.
STEVE GAVENAS: It went on officially on September 3rd of this year, and -- we have very strong demand for it. There's a lot of people who spend a lot of time in their vehicles, a lot of time alone in their vehicles. There's a large male contingent. A lot of truck drivers among our early adopters. So when you kind of roll it all up, this does seem to be a natural starting place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Basically very simple combination of two attractive young women sitting around talking dirty.
STEVE GAVENAS: Well I think that's, that's a pretty good way so summarize it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If porn were a person, with such a record of fueling technological progress, he - certainly he - would merit an award from at the very least the Chamber of Commerce, because as far as driving the modern economy is concerned, porn is better than sex. Douglas Rushkoff.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: This is an interesting one. Cowboys in the 1800s in America would pay more for a picture of a naked woman than they would to have sex with a prostitute. If a cowboy would pay more for a picture of a girl than for sex with a girl, then the picture of the girl has something that real sex doesn't -- repeatability, it has safety, it can't laugh at you, it, it can't tease you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Technology has always isolated us, says Rushkoff. That's why we crave better and better technology -- to occupy those lonely hours with flights into the unknown.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: I would argue that what really drives technology and interactive technology is not the re-creation of experiences that we can have in real life, but the invention of experiences that we can't have in real life, and that's when you see the real leaps forward.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Inevitably, then, the fingertip touch the scientists experienced this month will blossom into a full-blown body suit. In fact, there are companies working on that right now. That will be the moment when communications technology fulfills its ultimate potential -- to connect us entirely, antiseptically and without fear of judgment of rejection, with the person we most desire. [MUSIC]