Sunday, March 15, 2015

Seriously. What can we learn from the dildo & vibrator about tech?

We tend think of technology as something ‘recent’. But it’s been a feature of both our evolution and cultural development from the start. From hand-held tools to hand-held mobiles, technology has been a necessary condition for our survival and cultural success. The dildo/vibrator is a fascinating example.
1. Sex-tech is older than we think
Sex was not invented in the sixties and it is likely that our prehistoric ancestors were pretty turned on to the use of sex-tech, which has been dated back to at least 26000 years. The dildo predates agriculture, and there’s enough examples of usable phalluses to state, with some confidence, that this was a common object in prehistoric culture. A case has also been made for the ‘venus’ figures, especially those with exaggerated sexual features, as being a form of early pornography.
2. Tech can be appropriated
Curiously the first example of a ‘vibrator’ (steam driven) was a medical device used by doctors to cure ‘hysteria’ by inducing orgasms. There was even a wtaer-powered version you could attach to your sink. Technology always has this cultural context, in this case puritan, Victorian values, that saw women’s autonomy and, in their view, errant behaviour, as dysfunctional. But the tech-genie has a habit of escaping from the hands of controlling groups into the hands (literally) of real users…
3. Real consumers shape it
When vibrators started turning up in early porn photographs and films the game was up. They were first advertised as 'marital aids' then, eventually, but the tech had truly escaped and been appropriated by real users - women. In many ways, it was back to the future, Christian views of sex no longer controlled the tech, with reversion back to more naturalistic values that we have seen from pre-history to the Greeks & Romans. Dildos and vibrators were now literally in the hands of women, not men. The shape and function were consumer-led, a interesting example being the best selling ‘Rabbit’ reflecting the reality of clitoral orgasm. Let’s not forget the role of the LGBT community here. Our 21st C view of gender is also reflected in their demand for and design of sex-toys.
4. Design matters
Whatever you may think of sex toys they do look good. The design is fundamentally about imitative form but also needs colour, texture and usability. All are key design features that one wouldn’t want the, probably male, tool manufacturer to determine. This is an eternal feature of good tech, that design matters as much as functionality. From our stone-age ancestors to modern sex-toys, design has driven appeal and adoption.
5. Tech is combinatorial
The Nature of technology makes the case for technology being a combination of technologies, so it was with the move from dildo to vibrator. Just as the mobile phone is a combination of very smart tech from all sorts of different sources, so advances, particularly in batteries, motors and materials, all helped produce a better dildo experience for the consumer. The modern vibrator is a pretty smart piece of tech.
6. Tech becomes non-tech
No one baulks at the image of a dildo these days – well there’s maybe a couple that raise more than an eyebrow. At ‘Pride’ in Brighton there’s table-loads of them for sale. That’s what happens to successful tech, it gets normalised so much that it’s not longer ‘tech’. Tech becomes not-tech, just another object, invisible
7. Teach evolves
My guess is that the evolution of the dildo/vibrator will continue. I’ve seen Arduino driven sex-toys (odd), build your own sex toy kits, hacking of sex-toys (funny) even a TED talk! I’m certain that VR will add virtual, immersive experiences that make their use ever more realistic. It opens up the possibility for masturbation, sex between two partners at a distance. Lots of interestingexamples here. The only limit is the imagination. Again, we have the issue of re-appropriation for maybe not so desirable uses, then again, it was always so. All tech has upsides and downsides…..
Conclusion

Technology has repeatedly rewritten the rulebook about human behaviour and interaction. Sex toys have been around as long as our species has existed and following their evolution is like following the progress of our values. I’d argue that sex-tech has largely been a technology of liberation, for men, especially for women, but also for the LGBT community.
PS
If you live in or near London, there's a fascinating exhibition of sex devices at the Wellcome Foundation until September 2015.

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