Friday, July 23, 2010

A case study of the less pleasant side of the Internet, examined.

Update: I forgot to credit @ebertchicago and @stevensantos on Twitter for pointing me to this article. Thanks!

The Internet is filled with wonderful people sharing their thoughts. You can find lots of deep insights on all manners of topics, serious arguments and debates from just about any position imaginable, and you can find intelligence analysis of complicated social issues.
On the other hand, you can also find things like this. Just the title gives away how seriously the author, Rich Deem, takes his arguments. When your article is titled "Why Sex With Robots is Always Wrong: The Impending Demise of the Human Species," (emphasis mine) you are sending a clear message that you are more interested in getting attention than in making reasoned arguments. It is absurdly hyperbolic to say that there is a threat to the survival of humanity itself posed by the specter of cyberdildonics.

Don't get me wrong, however. It is fully and entirely possible to have a mature, adult discussion of the moral, ethical and social issues raised by sexbots. It is even possible to do so via the use of fiction and parable. In TV and movies alone, we see examples like Chobits, Battlestar Galactica and Ghost in the Shell taking sexuality with robots seriously. Even series like Buffy and Star Trek deal with these issues to some degree. What doesn't do this, however, is the parable-like story penned by Deem.

Rather, we get breathless statements like:

This page is going to seem rather far out and unrealistic, given today's moral standards. However, the standards are rapidly changing, and within a few years the human race will be in a position in which sexual immorality could exist on a widespread scale.
Setting aside for a moment the tiresome and troublesome phrase "sexual immorality," it is hardly the case that we are on the cusp of some global sexual crisis. Humanity is on quite a few cusps, but "increasing sexual perversion and increasingly pervasive virtual sex happening through the expanding acceptance of online pornography" is not one of them. Pornography has been an integral part of human sexuality for no short length of time, and though it is easier to access and disseminate via the Internet, that is by no stretch of imagination any more of a threat to human survival than the widespread availability of pictures of cats doing silly things.

Certainly, there are changes that we must be aware of and that we must learn to deal with, but Deem's use of the word "perversion" indicates right away that he has no interest in real social issues. Rather, he is content to stick to the fiction that there is a limited set of morally acceptable ways to enjoy consensual sex-- that somehow, there is a universal standard for the Right Way to Get It On that was set in stone billions of years before sex itself was produced by evolution. In some sense, this must be a comforting fiction, as it would seem to release one from the duty to challenge and improve their ethics and to actually confront real problems rather than producing absurd and comical windmills for tilting at.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Surely there is comedy to be found in how Deem communicates fevered nightmares to us? We're in luck:
Instead of magnesium frames covered with thick plastic, the robots were eventually designed using lightweight carbon-fiber composite designed to mimic the structure of human bones moved by pulley systems to generate the full range of human motion. The hard plastic was soon replaced with fabrics that felt like real skin. Thus, the transformation from machine to android was nearly complete. [emphasis mine]
This is the sort of statement I should expect from a creationist screed ("Why are there still machines if androids have been invented?"), and so I shouldn't be surprised to find that Deem takes pride in being a creationist. Rather than positing the existence of a wide range of robotic systems for various purposes, Deem's story has robotics doggedly pursuing some ultimate goal, which happens to be the same goal as his creation myth: humanity. The "transformation" described is but one more comical example of the bizarre and devout anthrocentrism to which creationists and such seem to hold. Indeed, in his hypothetical world, why is it a linear progression from ASIMO to android? Is there no room in this imagined future for a market that sells intentionally un-lifelike sexbots, or limited-functionality sexbots that appeal to the working class stiffs? No, of course there isn't. In Deem's world, the pornography and cyberdildonics industries don't at all resemble those in our world:
The first of these sex robots were crude, non-animated versions introduced in the early 2010's [sic]. However, soon top programmers and engineers were hired away from the automakers and computer companies with offers of up to ten times their average salaries, similar to what had been done with their movie businesses in the late 2010's [sic], when they had hired away Hollywood's best CG programmers to turn out realistic-looking virtual pornography movies. [emphasis mine]
In the real world, adult entertainment makes a lot of money, to be sure, but not so much as to be able to poach off talent en masse from three of the largest industries that our society has ever seen. In general, while pornographers have often been early adopters of technologies, they do not have the resources nor the social standing to revolutionize entire branches of science, such as Deem hypothesizes his future pornographers to have done with robotics:
Money from the adult entertainment industry, in their push for realistic motion and conversation, had accelerated the technology in what would have taken decades to only a few years.
Of course, Deem is not content to run roughshod over facts concerning economics. Indeed, we see that he is perfectly willing to perpetuate some of the most trite and easily debunked of gender-based stereotypes:
Although the newly designed FACA [ed: female anatomically correct android-- read, sexbot] looked good, they were still somewhat clumsy and had trouble with all but the most common colloquialisms. For the average male college student, this was not a major problem, since conversation was not his major intent. However, when companies tried to market MACA, the male counterpart, to the female college crowd, the acceptance was less than stellar... [emphasis mine]
Never mind that in the real world, people have complex and varied approaches to their own sexual lives. In Deem's world, it's simple: men like to have sex and women like to talk. Not that the stereotypes end there, mind you:
Acceptance among the male population evolved rapidly as men realized they could get an ideal "woman" whose only goal was to serve him. Entertainment companies became more bold as FACA were advertised as being "better than sex." In addition, FACA were adept at gourmet cooking, cleaning, and household chores, so that one could always use utility as an excuse to get one. [emphasis mine]
As a male, I am deeply offended by Deem's sick insinuation that my ideal of a companion, spouse, sexual partner or anything else is a being that wants only to serve me. This flippant remark, I suspect, betrays some of Deem's own attitudes towards his fellow humans. Certainly, I don't think that a healthy mind could project such a warped view of gender and of humanity itself onto the whole of his fictional society. Moreover, the implication that since his sexbots are replacing women as sex partners, they must also replace women at housework betrays some very regressive and oppressive notions of gender roles that are better left in our past than our future. Deem's future seems to be one in which women are no better than appliances with genitals, and in which as soon as appliances are endowed with artificial genitalia, women are left with no place at all in society. Not my idea of a positive future, or even of a realistic dystopia.

Doubling down on his commitment to narrow and harmful gender roles, Deem continues on to inform us that in his future:
Sperm banks sprang up all over as women who wanted to have children were forced to pay exorbitant prices, since very few men were interested in donating [...].
Men in this funhouse mirror view of sexuality have no interest in reproduction or family-building, so that all it takes is an overgrown sex toy to demolish his one, true Nuclear Family. So consumed with libido are his future's men that as long as they have a warm body (never mind that it's one devoid of a mind) to have sex with, they have no other desires or motives that may at all involve flesh and blood women. As much as this is patently misogynistic, condemning women to a status just slightly elevated from that of a washing machine, it is also a patently misandric view. Just as much as women should find Deem's futuresex revolting for what of himself he projects onto it, men should be outraged at his reduction of the complex whole of humanity to some cartoonish interplay between sex-crazed men and meek women. The climax in Deem's twisted fantasy seems to be when he declares that:
Men who owned a FACA disdained the company of real women, with all their incessant demands and mood swings. The sexual revolution was complete and we were all the victims.

In spite of all this, I must give Deem credit for the sheer multitude of ways that he manages to prove himself foolish. For instance, consider the near glee with which he sets up strawman versions of those with whom he disagrees:
Population control groups and environmentalists were thrilled that the human birth rate was now rapidly declining well below replacement levels. Several women's groups formed an alliance in an attempt to outlaw the sale of FACA. Virtually all attempts to legislate against FACA were either blocked by male legislators or in the courts as restricting freedom of speech.
All in the space of three sentences, Deem presents his reader with conveniently packaged and easy-to-hate caricatures of population control, environmentalism in general, feminism and the freedom of speech. He doesn't even try to understand or explore the reasons why environmentalists may want to keep the human population at sustainable reasons, but instead describes that they are thrilled to see the decline of humanity itself. Feminist groups he brushes aside as relatively powerless and reactionary groups easily defeated by "male legislators." Freedom of speech is seen in Deem's bizzaro world as some thin shield for "sexual immorality," whatever in the hell that is. He even sees fit to revisit his disdain for the protection of speech later, declaring that:
The Supreme Court has ruled that nearly all forms of pornography are first amendment "protected speech." There is no reason to believe that a machine would not fall into that category.
What we see from this serial strawmanning is that, just as rich and nuanced explorations of human sexuality have no place in Deem's reckoning, nor do subtle and qualified arguments. In fact, look at what Deem holds up as an example of courtroom drama:
In the middle of the examination, the defense attorney suddenly grabbed the FACA and slammed it to the ground, scattering pieces of the machine all over the floor. Suddenly, the facade of humanity was gone, as the lawyer asked if anyone was going to charge him with a crime. The last challenge against the widespread use of FACA had been crushed.
Though I think that the attorney in question is supposed to be a villain of Deem's narrative, it is still amazing that Deem leaves no room for his villain to actually argue. Rather, he must make his point through sheer brute force, eschewing any subtlety and any finesse that may help the readers identify what exactly the attorney believes in that is so reprehensible to Deem.

Having declared us all victims of the sexual revolution, Deem ends his story and progresses into a realm where he is even less able to hold his own: facts. I am not the best person to debunk and deconstruct his claims, such as that the viewing of pornography leads to a "trivialization of rape as a criminal offense." Luckily, however, there are those bold and wonderful few, such as sex educator Violet Blue, that tirelessly fight against the anti-porn movement by debunking lies, exposing poor studies, presenting studies that contradict anti-porn narratives and by educating people about sexuality in general. For more, I direct interested readers to her site dedicated to the pro-feminism sex-positive and pro-porn movements, Our Porn, Ourselves.

As for myself, I shall be content to leave this story here, and to instead concern myself with those parts of the Internet in which intelligent and mature discussion is to be found.

1 comment:

Pdfellwock said...

If you want to read serious, mature discussion of sexbots and their effect on humanity, check out