Luke Robert Mason: The future is always virtual. And many things that may seem imminent or inevitable never actually happen. Fortunately, our ability to survive the future is not contingent on our capacity for prediction. Though sometimes on those much more rare occasions, something remarkable comes of staring the future deep in the eyes and challenging everything that it seems to promise. My name is Luke Robert Mason and you’re listening to the Virtual Futures Podcast.
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. It’s time to bury the 20th century and begin work on the 21st. So, let’s begin.
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.
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. If you like what you’ve heard, you can subscribe for our latest episode. Or, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at “virtualfutures.” You can also support us on Patreon by going to patreon.com/virtualfutures. Thank you for listening to the Virtual Futures Podcast.