August 19, 2004

why isnít ubicomp sexy?

Itís a well-documented phenomenon that new media technologies are fertile ground for sex-related applications; consider the VCR, personal video cameras, cable TV, CD-ROM, MUDs, Usenet, the web, streaming video, mobile phones, and so forth. So if ubicomp is the next great revolution in computing, architecture, media, life, the universe, and everything, how come thereís no ubisex?

This is a family show, so I donít want this to seem gratuitously prurient. Nor am I advocating for an expansion of the smut industry into this new territory, given the questionable ethical and moral dimensions of the skin trade. However, I am actually curious if this is a salient question about the state of ubiquitous computing. Does the lack of an erotic underground tell us anything significant about the characteristics of todayís ubicomp visions, architectures and designs? The sex industry is creative, entrepreneurial, and quick to recognize new ways to reach into peopleís lives and wallets. Frequently it is an early if unacknowledged pioneer for mainstream media technology practices and business models. If there arenít any sexual applications for ubicomp now, will there be compelling mainstream applications later?

Maybe ubicomp isnít the right kind of medium. Storage and networks are distribution media, so they have obvious applicability for carrying content of any variety; pr0n just happens to be the early adopter flavor. But ubicomp isnít simply a carrier of bits, it is an embedding of computing and communications into the fabric of life. Nobody expected cars, toasters and alarm clocks to become erotic when digital electronics were designed into them, and maybe ubicomp is more like that Ė a layer of functionality more mundane than amative.

Maybe itís too early. There are almost no commercial ubi-products, and thus no real channel exists yet for delivering the goods and taking money in return. Ubicomp is still the domain of researchers, and the corporate, government, and university funding sources that support most such research arenít going to be leading the charge in this direction. Museum guides, elder care, memory prosthetics and ornithology, for sure. But how about teledildonics? Iím sure thereís scope for some very stimulating work in networked wearables and tangible media, but not under *my* NSF grant, thank you.

Then again, maybe we havenít reached the right level of sophistication in our thinking about ubicompís potential imprint on the sensual fabric of society. I like to think that one of the great applications of ubiquitous computing will be immersive, social storytelling, where communities of people will build persistent, multisensory story environments that combine audiovisual tapestries of media, many to many communication, and physical talismans and places, into deeply engaging experiences. It would be a true new medium, with potential for great expressive power. Within such a medium, I suspect we would find strong new modes of erotic expression. Ubicomp could be more than just another vehicle for the repetitive, exploitive and profane depictions of sex that are so common today; ubicomp could become sexy, in the best and most powerful sense of the word.

Posted by Gene at August 19, 2004 11:48 PM | TrackBack
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