Luke Robert Mason: You’re lis­ten­ing to the Future Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.

On this episode I speak to the UK’s lead­ing cyber­sex­pert and lec­tur­er in media stud­ies, Trudy Barber.

1992 I think it was, when I cre­at­ed the world’s first immer­sive sex envi­ron­ment in vir­tu­al reality.
Trudy Barber, excerpt from interview

Trudy shared her insights on the his­to­ry of cyber­sex, the future of teledil­don­ics, and the emerg­ing field of sex robot­ics. This episode was record­ed on loca­tion at Central Saint Martins in London, England, where Trudy was sched­uled to give a vis­it­ing lecture.

Luke Robert Mason: So Trudy, I know you as the UK’s lead­ing cyber­sex­pert. What is cybersex?

Trudy Barber: Well, cyber­sex is basi­cal­ly a way of explor­ing how peo­ple use var­i­ous types of tech­nol­o­gy for sex­u­al pur­pos­es. And this can be any­thing from sex­u­al iden­ti­ty through to actu­al sort of sex, acts of sex, online or with any kind of tech­nol­o­gy you can imag­ine, real­ly. Because peo­ple if they can try and invent new tech, they will also try and do all sorts of devi­a­tions with it.

Mason: So you’ve been work­ing this space since the mid-90s.

Barber: Yeah, 1992 I think it was, when I cre­at­ed the world’s first immer­sive sex envi­ron­ment in vir­tu­al reality.

Mason: So how do you cre­ate an immer­sive sex envi­ron­ment in vir­tu­al real­i­ty, in the mid-90s as well?

Barber: It was so clunky it was unbe­liev­able. I mean, the head­sets at the time then were like putting a small cathe­dral on your head, for a start. So every­thing weighed a ton. You were sort of con­nect­ed with all the wires and every­thing else. And what we did was we made a very very basic 3D envi­ron­ment with 3D sound that you float­ed into. You had like a joy­stick. And we had the words safe sex”—because it was just after the time when there was lots of pub­lic­i­ty about AIDS and every­thing else. And so we had the words safe sex” and we had the body of the Venus de Milo, and a male fig­ure with one of the— Well, I think it’s the first erect male penis in vir­tu­al space. It looked a lit­tle bit like a Trident mis­sile because you could­n’t get as many poly­gons as you can now. And he just kind of stood there. Looked a bit like Gort, actu­al­ly, from The Day the Earth Stood Still—the orig­i­nal one in the 1950s. 

So he was there, the body of the Venus de Milo was there—without a head. And we had float­ing con­doms, and we had float­ing vibra­tors. And the idea was for you to fly in, pick up a con­dom and place it on the penis. Or use the dil­do and place it some­where around the Venus de Milo. And once you did that, you got the orgas­ma­tron effect. You were thrown into this pat­tern of space with me moan­ing in 3D, going, Ah, ah!” like that. So it was a whole thing to raise AIDS aware­ness, and also to get peo­ple to under­stand that this tech­nol­o­gy was com­ing. And I was so excit­ed by ideas of sort of robot body, how the body con­nects with tech­nol­o­gy, and I was doing a lot of art­work about it because I was a stu­dent at Central Saint Martin’s at the time. And I did it as my under­grad­u­ate study. 

It just sort of took me over. It obsessed me. The whole thing was just fan­tas­tic. And going into this alter­na­tive space. You know, the William Gibson con­sen­su­al hal­lu­ci­na­tion. I could see the future. I could see how peo­ple could con­nect, and the things that we could do with it.

And then the Internet of course was start­ing at that same time. People were get­ting the Internet into their homes. So I could see this kind of linkup with the VR and the Internet, and I just could­n’t believe what was coming.

Mason: So how do you go from a fine arts prac­tice all the way through to explor­ing tech­nol­o­gy in the body? I mean, what was the point at which you went, You know what? I’m gonna be a cyber­sex expert.”

Barber: Well, because I did a lot of draw­ings of the body and I also did a lot of art­work to do with technology—because I was artist-in-residence with National Power, for exam­ple and I drew all the pow­er sta­tion at Fawley near Southampton. And the only way I could iden­ti­fy what I was draw­ing really—because I did­n’t real­ly know what all this machin­ery was—was in my head, in my mind’s eye, I turned it into a human fig­ure. So all the pip­ing and wiring were veins. All the big boil­ers were like the lungs. And all the big tur­bines were like the legs pow­er­ing the machinery.

So I thought this was real­ly inter­est­ing and would­n’t it be nice to turn it the oth­er way round and look at the body as a piece of tech­nol­o­gy. So I went and drew cadav­ers. And they were kind of stripped down to expose all their veins and stuff. I thought right, this is a machine.

So then I thought right, what hap­pens with an artist who draws the body, who deals with the body all the time? I know, they have affairs with the life mod­el, don’t they? They have their muse. So I thought right, let’s take this, let’s look at tech­nol­o­gy, let’s have an affair with this tech. Let’s try and put the sex into it. Let’s sex up the technology. 

So that’s basi­cal­ly what I did. And the thing about it is that’s at the time in London there was the sort of fetish scene and the sex­u­al sub­cul­tures that were real­ly com­ing to the fore at that point. And they were the ones who were will­ing to actu­al­ly show the work. So as I was doing my VR stuff, they were actu­al­ly set­ting up my VR instal­la­tions in the night­clubs like Skin Two, Rubber Ball, Sex Maniacs Ball. And that’s when we just want­ed to sort of pro­duce some­thing that we could raise cer­tain aware­ness of. 

But it just meant that we could start con­test­ing the idea of the future of our sex­u­al behav­ior and how we can fetishize things. How we can chuck that into vir­tu­al space. How we can see our bod­ies in vir­tu­al space. What is that going to do for our sex­u­al iden­ti­ties? What’s going to hap­pen when all the oth­er tech­nolo­gies change and then you can become any kind of gen­der you want­ed to be? What would hap­pen if you want­ed to be spanked in cyber­space? How would you get that hap­tic sen­sa­tion? And it just opened up a whole new vista for me.

So that’s how it start­ed. And I think a lot of peo­ple thought I was a bit crazy, but now it’s kind of like peo­ple are just redis­cov­er­ing what I’ve done sort of twenty-five-plus years ago, and—

Mason: Why do you think it took so long? Why do you think it’s only now? Is it to do with the growth of con­sumer devices? The fact that we can get access to VR quite eas­i­ly now? And do you think that’s where the inter­est comes from? Or is it some­thing else?

Barber: I think that the tech­nol­o­gy has become real­ly a lot more avail­able; it’s a lot cheap­er. I mean, the kit I was using— I worked with a com­pa­ny called Virtual S, and they had a whole team of peo­ple work­ing on this stuff. They also did stuff for Björk and peo­ple like that. And it was about half a mil­lion pounds’ worth of kit. It was absolute­ly crazy. And it was huge and you had a big van to move every­thing. Where as now you can get your Oculur Rift or your Vive or what­ev­er, and it’s only about what, 600 quid. 

And the oth­er thing is is that peo­ple did­n’t think they looked very cool wear­ing a head­set. You know, this huge big clunky thing. And they were kind of embar­rassed. Now, of course, it’s awful­ly trendy and love­ly and cool your nice lit­tle VR head­set and every­thing else and aug­ment­ed real­i­ty and all the rest of it.

So then with the advent of the Internet, that every­body has access to… You know, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the use of mobile media, it’s becom­ing total­ly com­mon­place. And also the actu­al accel­er­a­tion of how things are ren­dered. The qual­i­ty of what you see in VR now is so much—well it’s thou­sands of mil­lions times bet­ter than when I was orig­i­nal­ly doing it.

Mason: Do you think these peo­ple are com­ing in con­cert with the same chal­lenges, though? I mean, the thing that inter­ests me most about the fact that you were doing this in the mid-90s is it feels like the folks that have just emerged in the last two to five years are hit­ting all the same prob­lems that you had almost twenty-five years ago. And I just won­der what were the key learn­ings that you had, and how you’re sort of help­ing this next group to basi­cal­ly devel­op what they’re try­ing to do.

Barber: I think we’re end­ing up kind of recy­cling cer­tain prob­lems. Because at the end of the day we’re deal­ing with human nature. And basi­cal­ly it’s kind of same old same old, but with dif­fer­ent tech­nol­o­gy. You could almost look at it in a tech­no­log­i­cal deter­min­is­tic way, say­ing that the tech­nol­o­gy is chang­ing the behav­ior, or is the behav­ior actu­al­ly mean­ing that we’re chang­ing the technology?

I think it’s quite inter­est­ing to see how peo­ple… Well, what’s hap­pen­ing, what’s real­ly inter­est­ing, is that we’re get­ting young women who’re tak­ing a lot of these ideas and being entre­pre­neur­ial and actu­al­ly real­ly devel­op­ing some VR ideas, par­tic­u­lar­ly the things like vibra­tors and stuff, too. Which I think is real­ly nov­el, and I think that’s real­ly clever. And I wish I’d had that sup­port myself.

So there’s this idea of sup­port fol­low­ing through. And I think there’s gen­er­al­ly a dif­fer­ent kind of atti­tude to how we engage with inti­ma­cy in tech­nol­o­gy. Like dat­ing sites. I mean, you’ve got adverts on the TV. This web site makes you look like a big pig and that’s enough for you to be friend­ly with some­body. Those kind of adverts, they’re hilar­i­ous. But I pre­dict­ed all this in the ear­ly 90s. And peo­ple would say, Oh, no. It’s only sick­os are gonna go on the Internet. Sicko peo­ple.” And it was like well no, actually. 

Video dat­ing, it’s the same thing, only now it’s this kind of tech­nol­o­gy. Even in the late 1800s, a woman called Ella Cheever Thayer wrote a book called Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes to do with the tele­graph. So it’s always kind of there. People will take the tech­nol­o­gy and want to do some­thing inti­mate with it.

Mason: So there’s always been his­tor­i­cal prece­dents for many of these ideas. I know one of the inter­est­ing places you’re play­ing in right now is real­ly not just look­ing at the devices and how we have a tele-experience with some­body else, but peo­ple are now inter­est in the idea of hav­ing sex with robots, with objects. You have some quite inter­est­ing views on that.

Barber: Yeah, the whole robot sex issue is quite inter­est­ing because you’re kind of tak­ing all the ideas I’ve been talk­ing about—the idea of tech­no­log­i­cal intimacy—but you’re putting it into like a golem. You’re putting it into this kind of humanoid possibly-looking piece of tech­nol­o­gy. Then we’re look­ing at ideas of the hap­py val­ley. Why did these things—

Mason: The Happy Valley.

Barber: The hap­py val­ley. Is it— No. Is it the hap­py valley?

Mason: The uncan­ny valley?

Barber: The uncan­ny val­ley! Sorry. I’m in the hap­py val­ley!

Mason: Although, almost for a sec­ond there I thought oh, there’s a hap­py val­ley? To what degree does the robot have to be sexy enough for me to be hap­py about that? Oh, okay.

Barber: Sorry about that; the uncan­ny val­ley. I’ll get there in the end. (It’s been a long week.) So you’ve got the uncan­ny val­ley and you’ve got these var­i­ous issues as to how we almost do a piece of coun­ter­trans­fer­ence onto the robots. And also the idea of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence enabling the robots to answer you back or say the things that you’d like them to say.

And I think it’s real­ly a gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty to exam­ine how we do things like cre­ate love maps of our ide­al rela­tion­ship. And we can learn so much about how we can inte­grate with the tech­nol­o­gy through rela­tion­ships. And I think also the oth­er thing that I find so inter­est­ing is the dif­fer­ent ways peo­ple either real­ly are inter­est­ed in it and can see a future in it, and there’s the peo­ple who are absolute­ly revolt­ed by it.

Mason: Yeah, there seems to be a lot of moral out­rage attached to this idea of hav­ing sex with robots. I know there’s been a cam­paign to stop sex robots in the same way there’s a cam­paign to stop killer robots. What is your reac­tion when peo­ple start try­ing to gen­er­ate atten­tion around sort of cam­paigns like that?

Barber: I mean, I think it’s inevitable you’re going to have sort of very extreme views on this. I mean with the killer robots it’s quite inter­est­ing because mil­i­tar­i­ly, they’re com­ing and they are here. There’s no doubt about that. As with sex robots, I see them as sex­ter­tain­ment. So we’ve got an enter­tain­ment thing here. Because I mean…you’ve seen those RealDolls, haven’t you.

Mason: Yeah.

Barber: Those nice big Barbie things that come in a big box. And there’s that whole idea of necrophil­ia going on there as well. It’s… It’s kind of…awkward, because you’re going to have, you’ve got cer­tain stig­ma attached to that, that kind of rela­tion­ship, peo­ple who engage in those kind of rela­tion­ships. So you’re look­ing at what I say is you’ve either got the robots that you want to tin­ker with in the garage. You know, you can unbolt it and stuff. Or there’s the one that you could almost take out for din­ner with you. Although it prob­a­bly could­n’t eat any­thing any­way, but they could just sit there and stare at you or talk to you.

Mason: Do you think that’s a thing that peo­ple are most con­cerned about? That peo­ple might actu­al­ly pre­fer a rela­tion­ship with a robot than a human? Do you think that’s where a part of the moral out­rage comes from?

Barber: Well, the thing is that you’ve also got dif­fer­ent view­points on how peo­ple per­ceive rela­tion­ships and how peo­ple engage with each oth­er. So there’s things like eye con­tact. There’s things like warmth. There’s things like expres­sion. And what’s hap­pen­ing is you’re look­ing also at of sort of spec­trum iden­ti­ties. So, being able to learn, maybe, how to be inti­mate with some­body might be an inter­est­ing thing. But I think the fact that some­body prob­a­bly has to do that in the first place, some peo­ple will find that very off-putting. 

Mason: There’s been dis­cus­sions of using sex robots to cure pedophil­ia in some cas­es. There’s been these wild exam­ples. But also, do you think sex robots can be used for good? For if indi­vid­u­als have issues relat­ing to oth­er peo­ple in the real world? Do you think they could be used for something—

Barber: Yeah, I think they can be used— I mean, there are sex sur­ro­gates any­way as part of rela­tion­ship coun­sel­ing. But I think it’s anoth­er choice. You know, it’s anoth­er way of choos­ing how to learn about your­self, in a sense. Of, if you’ve got enough mon­ey to spend and you want to spend it on a sex robot, then that’s what you want to do. Who am I to stop you from doing that? It’s an addi­tion­al choice for sex­u­al behav­ior and it’s an addi­tion­al choice, as I say, for enter­tain­ment val­ue. I mean, we’ve got these sex doll broth­els that have made it in the news recent­ly. I mean, I could see those as being sort of places where you could have real­ly weird stag nights with a whole lot of these weird dolls. Again, the sex­ter­tain­ment idea. 

But then of course you’ve got dif­fer­ent jobs com­ing out with this. You could be a sex tech­nol­o­gist or a sex­ter­tain­ment engi­neer. All these sort of things that can hap­pen now. So I don’t know. I think it’s part of human nature, and the idea of hav­ing just this ide­al­is­tic view­point of sex and the body and stuff, I think it’s out the win­dow. People have fetish­es for all sorts of things. People engage with sex­u­al prac­tices in all sorts of dif­fer­ent ways. And I think it’s inevitable that the robot is going to be part of that. Because that’s the way we are.

Mason: You’ve dis­cussed this term in you work, the datafi­ca­tion of sex and how those sorts of objects may actu­al­ly lead to that. Could you explain what the datafi­ca­tion of sex is?

Barber: The datafi­ca­tion of sex, the datafi­ca­tion of plea­sure. It’s already hap­pen­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly. When I orig­i­nal­ly did my research, I stud­ied a group of peo­ple who con­nect­ed their bod­ies up to their Internet serv­er, cre­at­ed their own serv­er. And they had all sorts of inny-outy devices and dil­dos and all sorts of stuff that would go off at cer­tain fre­quen­cies. And they could work out what their orgas­mic fre­quen­cy was.

So, tak­ing this, check­ing it now for­ward twenty-five years, we’ve now got my vibra­tors that actu­al­ly were send­ing details to their vibrat­ing com­pa­ny of the orgas­mic fre­quen­cies and how often the vibra­tor was being used and all the rest of it. And the com­pa­ny’s I think been sued that was doing this. So they’re col­lect­ing that data, the data of the women or the men that were using those vibra­tors with­out their—

Mason: But we seem to be hap­py with Facebook or social media plat­forms tak­ing their data. But what do you think it is about that sort of very inti­mate data that we find so—

Barber: Maybe peo­ple are wor­ried about how often they’re using it, or maybe if they’re not using it enough. 

Mason: It’d be so fun­ny, with regards to what’s hap­pen­ing with Trump want­i­ng to snoop on ISP and Internet his­to­ry, it seems to me that the run­ning joke, the thing that most peo­ple are wor­ried about is how much porn they’re watching.

Barber: Oh yeah. 

Mason: You know. Of every­thing else, they like oh God, the gov­ern­ment can see your porn habits.

Barber: Yeah. Yeah.

Mason: I mean, these tech­nolo­gies to some degree, don’t they help people—especially the sex robot technologies—help peo­ple dis­cov­er sort of what their real pref­er­ences are? Give them a safe space, a safe envi­ron­ment to explore these sorts of things? It feel like cyber­sex, a lot of the ear­ly cyber­sex work you did was real­ly about help­ing peo­ple to dis­cov­er some­thing more about themselves.

Barber: Yeah. It does allow you to cre­ate this alter­na­tive space where can expe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent things safe­ly, par­tic­u­lar­ly in rela­tion to the idea of AIDS and every­thing else that was hap­pen­ing in the late 80s, ear­ly 90s. And I think it can give you a safe space. And it can…I mean, you could pos­si­bly go into like a social net­work and share expe­ri­ences now with vibra­tors and things, too. So you could pos­si­bly have what I’m call­ing a mas­sive open hap­tic online orgy (or the MOHOO) by doing those kind of expe­ri­ences and see­ing— I mean, if you don’t like it, just switch it off. And that’s the oth­er thing, you could just switch it off if you don’t like it. Or just take it out. 

Mason: There’s some wor­ry about com­mod­i­fy­ing sex in this way. I know you’ve men­tioned in pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tions we’ve had with regards to that, it’s just a dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at the sex act. It’s no longer about pro­cre­ation, it’s about that thing, enter­tain­ment. Do you find any issues with the fact that it’s mov­ing that way? Do you think it’s excit­ing and lib­er­at­ing that poten­tial­ly these tech­nolo­gies are enabling a new way in which we inter­act with each oth­er intimately?

Barber: I think it’s just like the pill, the birth con­trol pill. Suddenly, that tech­nol­o­gy enabled women to express them­selves and to be able to have the dif­fer­ent types of sex­u­al rela­tion­ships that they want­ed with­out the wor­ry of get­ting preg­nant. And there was that whole kind of hoo-ha about how this is going to give some kind of real­ly dodgy soci­ety, every­body’s going to be shag­ging every­body else. But I think with this tech­nol­o­gy in the way that we’re look­ing at inti­ma­cy, I think it’s tak­ing it anoth­er stage again. I think it is going to be like the pill. It’s going to have that kind of mas­sive impact. And—

Mason: Eventually it’ll be nor­mal­ized. Do you think it’s going to be one of these things— the same way in which twenty-five years ago, what you were doing, what you had to do kind of with sub­ver­sive groups now is kind of this nor­mal­ized thing that’s adver­tised on billboards.

Barber: Yeah. The same way that the Internet is on our mobile phones. We car­ry it with us all the time. 

Mason: You men­tioned in some pre­vi­ous work about how devi­a­tion is actu­al­ly allow­ing for inno­va­tion. I just won­dered if you’d explain that. I love that phrase, devi­a­tion is innovation.” 

Barber: Yeah. One of things I found was that when I stud­ied the peo­ple who were want­i­ng to engage it online, they were real­ly doing some ground­break­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions to their kit. So they were mak­ing their own servers, they were get­ting peo­ple say the States to log in to their own pri­vate serv­er. They were get­ting all the kit. Going on the Internet, the ear­ly Internet, and buy­ing things like all the med­ical equip­ment so that they could actu­al­ly plug them­selves in to their server.

And of course a lot of this stuff now is com­mon­place. But at the time, they were kind of cre­at­ing it in their bed­rooms, in the garage. And I thought that because they had these par­tic­u­lar ideas and cer­tain predilec­tions, that they were able to invent and cre­ate new pieces of tech for that. And I think we’ve seen an accel­er­a­tion of that now. So I think the tech­nol­o­gy gives you the space to devi­ate, which in turn gives you anoth­er space to inno­vate further.

Mason: And now it’s going to the extent where there’s now busi­ness mod­els. Teledildonics seems to be just anoth­er one of these prod­ucts that you can buy, and they’re get­ting more sort of inter­est­ing and inti­mate in dif­fer­ent shapes and dif­fer­ent forms…

Barber: It’s almost like a frac­tal ele­men­tal of it going many more, many more, the same, the same, many more, many more. It’s that kind of way of look­ing at a busi­ness mod­el, I think. It’s intrigu­ing the way we have all sorts of things now in the cloud. So, there was a time when you use to have your vinyl, and then your CD, and now it’s in the cloud. So you used to be able to have a whole shelf of things when peo­ple would come to vis­it. You would have all this stuff all on dis­play. And slow­ly all this stuff just dis­ap­pears into the cloud and we’ll be in these kin­da ster­ile spaces, where all the things that we love and have will be digital.

But, you can imag­ine a nice shelf with some wonderfully-tailored dil­dos on your man­tel­piece that can prob­a­bly talk to you as well and tell you how to make a cup of tea. So it’d prob­a­bly be some­thing like the Amazon…what’s her name? 

Mason: Amazon Alexa.

Barber: Yeah, Alexa, that vibrates for you and stuff, as well, and tells you when to have your bit of sex if you wanted.

Mason: I mean, do you want the same rela­tion­ship with an Amazon Alexa? Do you want an inti­mate rela­tion­ship with an Amazon Alexa? Would that be preferential?

Barber: There are peo­ple… I know one cou­ple who, the wife got real­ly real­ly upset because the hus­band would obey the female voice on the sat­nav and yet he would­n’t do what she said when they were at home. And actu­al­ly she got jeal­ous of the satnav.

Mason: Do you think there’s a gen­der imbal­ance with regards to cyber­sex right now? Or is that being fixed? You said you’re see­ing female entre­pre­neurs com­ing for­ward and cre­at­ing these sorts of prod­ucts, and does that change the sort of thing that’s created?

Barber: I think one of the things you need to think about is… One of the sort of sex­u­al dif­fer­ences is that men do fetishize dif­fer­ent­ly to women. Man can fetishize quite eas­i­ly. And I think we’re see­ing an exten­sion of fetishis­tic behav­ior which is not usu­al­ly a par­tic­u­lar female char­ac­ter­is­tic. There are women fetishists. But it’s not as well-known or as well-experienced, in a sense, than it is for men. And I think men will col­lect lots of things, they will have pas­sion for things like I don’t know…say trains, for example—trainspotting. I mean, who on earth would want to spend all day just writ­ing num­bers down of trains, for good­ness sake? 

But it’s a pas­sion. So if you just take away the train and replace it with a big sex doll, it’s the same kind of thing. And it’s different…but it’s a dif­fer­ent kind of fetishiz­ing than how women would inter­act. I mean, you do have male sex dolls. A gay mar­ket as well. And the same with the female sex dolls. There might be some women who want to play with them.

Mason: I mean, how do you think this is all going to even­tu­al­ly play out? You’ve seen the last twenty-five years. Where do you think it’s going to be in the next twenty-five?

Barber: I think we’re going to see a com­plete accel­er­a­tion of the way these objects are devel­oped, cre­at­ed, designed, and invent­ed. And I think we’re going to see nan­otech­nolo­gies. We’re going to see dif­fer­ent types of mate­r­i­al, poly­mers, and things, graphenes. That we’re going to change the way we even make and think about robots.

And then of course they’ll be part of us because we will also become tech­no­log­i­cal­ly adept with all sorts of nan­otech­nol­o­gy in our own bod­ies, that even­tu­al­ly there’ll be a sym­bi­ot­ic link between us and robots. Maybe there won’t be a dif­fer­ence anymore.

Mason: Thank you to Dr. Trudy Barber for shar­ing her thoughts on the future of intimacy. 

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