Porn’s place in history laid bare

The Erotic EngineHave you booked a flight or done some Christmas shopping online this year? Or was yours one of the many Australian households that drove broadband penetration from 10 percent in 2003 to nearly 50 percent today? If so you might wonder what internet pornography has to do with you. Even if you’ve never even taken a peek, journalist and technology watcher Patchen Barss thinks you owe a huge debt to our huge appetite for sexual imagery.

In fact he thinks we might have more than just the modern Internet to thank for the mass underground adoption of porn. According to his book The Erotic Engine, pornography (literal original meaning — photographs of prostitutes) has been one of the driving forces behind mass communication, back to and beyond the Gutenburg printing press. You’ve probably seen images of the rotund Venus of Willendorf, but did you know the famous Lascaux cave paintings in France contain not just scenes of horses and bison but men sporting unlikely-sized erections?

“I became aware of [the connection] when I wrote a technology column,” the author says on the phone from his Canadian home. “I first became aware of it around the time of the internet but started hearing stories about the VCR. I realised it was a really powerful force and shaped a lot of things people who had nothing to do with pornography enjoy and use everyday, but it was hardly being talked about.”

One of the most interesting aspects of The Erotic Engine is that as well as supporting the claim, Barss book also settles some long held misconceptions, just one being the idea the porn industry declared VHS the winner in the format wars that characterised the early video era. In fact porn studios were keeping video stores afloat in the early days on both VHS and Beta before mainstream movies were ever profitable on video. A lot of other factors on the winds of commercial change decided the winner, but porn’s influence convinced movie studios that videotapes were a goldmine. Until then, the prevailing mood in Hollywood was a fear the home VCR would kill the cinema.

But the author’s investigation took him even further back, before the era of computers and even printed text. And in each case he found a similar story. The technical barrier was often high, but a critical tipping point of early adopters made the volume worth investing in. It allowed manufacturers to flood society with expensive, complicated consumer technologies relatively cheap and make them easier to use as they caught on. It’s how we ended up with mass markets for photography, 8mm film and the web and in every case, those critical early adopters mostly used the nascent medium for a single pursuit; sex.

Barss says he was fully prepared for the research to prove his thesis wrong, but the deeper he dug into the history of everything from Blu-ray DVD to Neolithic cave art, the more the truth emerged about erotica’s millennia-old place in our collective imagination. “I approached with a very sceptical eye because people from the pornography industry are only too ready to tell you about their role as technological pioneers,” he explains. “I thought the book might end up being about this overblown claim, but even with that level of skepticism I was surprised at the range of technologies whose development was influenced by it.”

One of the first things that struck The West after reading The Erotic Engine was why it hadn’t been written before — particularly because of the common mythology about porn’s role in mass adoption of the VCR. Are we just liberal enough to accept reportage on such a topic in our more sexually open society?

Even today, Barss ran into some hurdles. “It’s a difficult subject to write about,” he agrees. A lot of people today — maybe as many as in the past — are uncomfortable talking about it. But I set out to deal with it in an intelligent way that provokes thought rather than controversy. The reactions ran the gamut from uncomfortable and wondering why you’d ever want to write a book like it to people who were kind of in awe of it… mostly men.”

Barss has succeeded, and The Erotic Engine is a fascinating story about our deeply entrenched responses to each other and the world around us. Having contributed to the rise of artistic endeavour and certainly a large slice of modern capitalism (anywhere between $2-10b depending on who you ask), it’s about much weightier stuff than just dirty pictures.