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12/10/2010

Pornography's dirty tech secret

It’s the secret that’s not a secret. Everybody seems to know it, but nobody wants to say it: Pornography has been a massively powerful driver of advances in communication.

It has been called the dirty secret of the VCR, which might never have seen mainstream success had pornography consumers not embraced its privacy-enhancing nature. It’s the dirty secret of cable television, whose initial market depended heavily on consumers paying to have pornography piped into their homes. The dirty secret of YouTube and CNN.com, which are built on streaming-video technology first developed by pornographers. Of eBay and PayPal, both beneficiaries of the pornography industry’s pioneering efforts to develop e-commerce and to commercialize the Internet.

The dirty secret of photography, microfilm, video-on-demand, Internet bandwidth, BBS’s, chat rooms, virtual worlds, webcams, smartphones. The list goes on.

“It's past time someone told that story,” a software engineer and entrepreneur said to me recently. “I remember a couple of years ago when I visited a friend at Google and saw the unfiltered search strings: about 75% of all searches are searches for porn.”

Porn’s influence is both blatant, and blatantly ignored.

Leave for a moment the question of why such a powerful force of technological advance remains so hidden. Consider how it remains hidden.

Marketers and web developers I have spoken to say that working in pornography gives them a reputation for being ahead of the curve. Nevertheless, when they decide to apply to a mainstream tech company, these people tend to scrub their pornographic credentials. Stigma outweighs mystique.

The same pattern happens with technologies themselves: Typically, pornography has greatest influence early in the life of a new technology — it was initially crucial to the VCR, for instance, but ultimately the technology developed enough of a mainstream market for a company like Blockbuster to thrive (until recently) without dealing in porn. Similarly, Steve Jobs can ban pornographic apps from the iPhone only because the Internet technologies on which it relies have matured to the point where the mainstream can sustain it.

The “dirty secret” is applied retroactively — the pornographic elements are scrubbed from the media history.

“Hypocrisy!” cry pornography insiders. “Far from eschewing porn, Steve Jobs should shake hand with pornography industry leaders and thank them personally for their decades of technological trailblazing.”

I see it differently. True, the role of pornography is too big to ignore, but those who affect willful blindness are not necessarily hypocrites. This is a subject that makes many people genuinely uncomfortable. Many smart people honestly worry that acknowledging the relationship between pornography and technology legitimizes the product and undermines valid concerns about sexism, exploitation and violence.

I grapple with this myself. I know, though, that the ugly aspects of pornography coexist with its influence on technology. Neither diminishes the other. This uneasy juxtaposition might make people uncomfortable, but facing this “secret” directly is the only way to understand honestly how the tools and techniques of mass communication developed.

Patchen Barss is the author of The Erotic Engine, How Pornography Powered Mass Communication from Gutenberg to Google.

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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.

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