Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:

Darling ... Are You Real?

It is not news that sex sells. Nor that new media often contain sexual images. The first books, the first photographs. The initial demand for VCRs in the home, creating a critical mass that enabled Hollywood to sell films. And, of course, the Internet and other digital media.

Because pornographers routinely shoot scenes from various angles to meet the needs of diverse markets, their works are a natural for Digital Video Discs. Users can click on a scene from as many as sixteen angles and zoom in and out. It's an interesting mix on the user's part of a need for control and a need for the person or image they manipulate to be or seem to be real.

A "cyberbabe" sits in a cubicle responding to typewritten commands from people paying four dollars/minute to interact with her image in a small square on their monitors. Writing for Wired, Frank Rose wondered what request the women received most. It was not an explicit sexual act but ... "Would you please ... wave?"

Users need to know that the tiny image of the dancing digital doll ... is real. They want her really to be there ... and to be there just for them.

The mind boggles. The human soul is so hungry for self-deception that it will swallow a pig whole.

Those who manufacture pornography are not known for originality. Quite the contrary. Their clients do not want innovation or creativity, they want predictability, and as a genre, pornography is nothing if not predictable. Scenes follow a formula -- A x B x C x D x E -- the letters corresponding to increasingly explicit scenes, the Xs corresponding to filler that lets the user inhale before the next escalation. That's why, for example, Vladimir Nabokov could argue that Lolita was not pornographic.

The requests that flow to those booths are easily anticipated. Like children who never tire of hearing the same story read the same way. and who in fact will object if a single detail is different, clients want the reassurance of the same scenario played out the same way again and again. The comforting touch of a mother as much as a lover.

It ought to be simple for programmers then to set up a database of video clips indexed to specific requests, the variations linked to a natural language interface. When the client types, "wave your hand," the clip of a lady waving will respond. A hundred and fifty waves with each hand ought to handle the most suspicious client.

The next step, of course, is not to have an actor in the box at all. Just as session musicians who counted on studio work for their livelihood have lost jobs to synthesizers, a digital cyberbabe can be constructed, pixels of light substituting for an image of a real person. It isn't the pixels but the pattern, after all, that makes an image a symbol, and it's a symbol that clients of a digital interface -- any digital interface -- need.

Come to think of it, we used to call them "movies" ... images of shadow and light simulating the appearance of real people so well that we had to keep saying to ourselves, "it's only a movie" when we grew afraid or developed a crush on a leading man or woman -- someone who wasn't there, never had been there, someone who hired a staff to pretend to be them when we wrote to confess our love.

People used to think characters in novels were real too. The Dickens character, Little Nell, was followed by serial readers the way soap operas are watched on television. A crowd burst into tears when the captain of the ship bringing the latest installment to New York told them that Little Nell was dead.

The film noir masterpiece Body Heat depicts a lawyer deceived by the words of the women he loves. He says at the end -- speaking perhaps for all of us -- "experience shows that I can be convinced of anything." We have to pinch ourselves to remember that there's no there there, that Mattie Walker is only a digital image of someone pretending to use speech to deceive.

The best "hacking" is done by people working on people, not computers. It isn't data that's relevant but patterns constellated by data, the intentions of a person in a particular context revealed by the way the data seems to connect. "Social engineering" is the art and craft of eliciting information by pretending to be someone you're not, acting a role that blends with its surroundings so seamlessly it seems real.

Which is one reason why businesses have replaced countries in the post-Cold War global free market, why intelligence and counterintelligence, information and disinformation, are axiomatic to remaining viable in a knowledge economy. The local head of the FBI just joined an accounting firm to work on fraud. A well-known hacker joined a big six firm as head of their Tiger Team. Business, intelligence, and hacking are in many ways indistinguishable.

It must have started with speech. One can imagine the shock when speech emerged in human culture and people realized that someone could know their thoughts merely by ... speaking with them, asking questions. Speech must have become a means of hiding in the same instant it became a means of self-disclosure. Truth and lies are Siamese twins, joined at the lips.

So the difficulty of knowing -- "darling, are you real?" -- is not new to the digital era. Nor the celluloid era of Meg Ryan as Sally in that restaurant scene. Our experience does show that we are capable of believing anything, that our primitive brains take appearance at face value. Betrayal and self-deception as a cause of human tragedy are as old as story and song.

And so ... I want you to know that I am here, I am real, I am saying good-bye ... and waving my hand toward the monitor as I fade into the distance ...

Islands in the Clickstream is a weekly column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology. Comments are welcome.

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Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and organizations.

Islands in the Clickstream (c) Richard Thieme, 1998. All rights reserved.

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