erotic code

The current geological era could be rightly called Technocene, as the reasons for defining a new epoch undoubtedly have more to do with technological action than with human psychophysiological state. According to the sociologist Hermínio Martins, the definition of Anthropocene, which refers to the impact of human activity on the planet, especially relating to the increasing use of fossil fuels and the related release of CO2 in the atmosphere, is now largely outdated [1]
Today, due to the action of technologies, reality is redefined not by oil, but by a constant data flow that shifts offline [2]. Bots, algorithms and artificial intelligences condition in an opaque way our life, investing both the sphere of individuality and sociality.
The messaging applications that we control from our smartphones are the latest and most advanced descendants of the chat rooms, very popular in the early 2000s. The goal has remained roughly the same: clear distances to connect everyone worldwide; only perfected thanks to a very rapid technological evolution. . So far, the aim was only partially achieved, since it must be admitted that this kind of applications contributes at the same time to generate groups and subgroups, called communities in the lexicon of the web. Even though we have access to a potentially endless address book of contacts, in fact, the tendency is to connect with people who, if not already known, we find familiar. Certainly our interests guide our online relationships exactly as they do in real life, but it would be naive to think that our belonging to an online group is the result of a  non-mediated choice. As well known, any search or purchase made online is indexed by search engines to optimize and redirect future searches and purchases. In the same way we are guided to attend only certain web environments that algorithmic processes have identified as the most satisfactory for us, after carefully classifying tastes and interests. The satisfaction of a need is the main premise of every action carried out on the web. In the same way, technology directs its constant updating towards the same goal, but while it nourishes our sense of freedom it ends up limiting at least in part the ability to choose. Whether it’s buying a book, watching a movie or choosing where to go for dinner, none of our decisions are completely free, it is necessary to reflect on the fact that often what we think we have “discovered” has been more “suggested” to us by technologies developed to predict and create needs.
Before being individuals, online we are users (and perhaps even consumers), we must therefore be aware that this pre-selection mechanism can affect even more delicate aspects of our persona and the relationships we have, including a sphere considered untouchable as sexuality.
Tastes, trends and curiosities are elaborated and returned in amplified form to satisfy every possible desire: sexuality and its contours today inevitably have to do with technology.

Even experiences that belong only a few decades ago are evidences of a different way of understanding sex: the film Comizi d’amore (1964) by Pier Paolo Pasolini, investigates through interviews Italians’ sexual habits. In the typical form of the film-investigation, Pasolini presents a mapping, a documentation of how sexuality was understood in Italy and how it was socially shared. What emerges is the photograph of a country in which there were many factors that contributed to generate the statements of the interviewees. Despite the different contents of the answers, what emerged clearly was how sexuality belonged to an intimate, personal panorama, conditioned by the family and the context of origin, which could potentially change only as the conditions of the system changed. Of course a comparison between the Sixties and the present day is obsolete, the point is that the context in which our sexuality could mature and form was personal, lived and mediated, but still real. Once it was the social level, the origin from a rural or urban environment, the religious environment, the access to different degrees of education (Kinsey 1957) that conditioned sexual formation and its expression, now it is technology that plays this role almost unilaterally, communicating everything but without encouraging real exploration. 
Without going into the merits of the spread of pornographic video sharing platforms like Pornhub, to report this interference it is enough to remember the incalculable amount of communities related to sexuality, but also the success of dating sites. These two examples are daily reminders of how our ability to relate to sexuality is mediated by technology.
In this sense we should mention the community of 4chan, an imageboard website on whose message boards users can publish anonymously and with little regulation their content, often related to a sexual and pornographic context. The Canadian artist Jon Rafman centers the point on the video work Still Life (Betamale), where he investigates erotic desires through a collection of video clips from 4chan’s porn subculture channels, where the work was published for the first time. The variety of images is surprising and frames the web’s ability to catalyze subcultures related to sexuality. 

Still Life (Batamale), 2013, Video a colori in HD con audio stereo, colonna sonora di: Oneohtrix Point Never, 4’54’’.

The success of dating sites, on the other hand, comes from the confidence that algorithms are able to solve our relationships better than us and that they are able to offer us the right partner because he/she/they are statistically compatible. In 2015, the case of AshleyMadison.com, a dating site for married people looking for adventures, shocked the public opinion. After being hacked, AshleyMadison.com made public the personal information of its thirty-seven million members. It was striking that only five million of the total community members were women, many of whom were never logged in after first logging in to create the account. A survey revealed that the platform used about seventy thousand automated female profiles to grow its business volume, and that as a result, many men had been unwittingly involved with software for years.

For its technological mediation, the discourse on sexuality is placed in a wider panorama. If it is true that contemporary perception is now mediated by machines, so is the fact that the spectrum of human vision has remained the same and covers only a small part of it. In this regard, it is interesting to consider how human vision acts differently from technological vision, but also how they influence each other. 
The first studies on human vision based on direct observation of the phenomenon can be traced back to the nineteenth century, while the first devices created to record eye movement  can be traced back to the beginning of the last century.
 A first non-invasive eye tracking technology prototype  was invented by George Buswell  as early as the 1930s [3], but it is in recent decades that it has acquired new potential and meaning with the refining of capabilities and integration into the digital information system. Eye-tracking devices have been used to study the mechanisms of human vision to improve the effectiveness of advertising and more recently to collect data on users of web-connected devices. Eye movement analysis is often processed simultaneously with information on the corresponding physical action: page scrolling, mouse click and keystrokes. Eye tracking is an increasingly crucial component for monitoring and behavioral analysis industries that deal with the extraction and accumulation of information through data. Technologies that were born to know and support human processes ended up by conditioning their choices and vision, if only because much of what is proposed online is influenced by these studies. In fact, due to the computational capabilities of artificial intelligences, the contribution of human vision is increasingly reduced and our ability to respond is in some cases delegated to algorithms (Crary 2019).

The work The Wall of Gazes by Mariano Sardón [4] highlights the difference between technological and human vision by making visible how images are revealed to us through eye movements. The artist recorded the glances of about one hundred and fifty people sitting in front of portraits through an eye tracker device, the glances were then archived and became the basis of a video. It is clear how certain parts of the face are actually observed while others remain hidden when the attention is focused elsewhere: compared to the technological one, the retinal gaze is limited.
The amount of data, including images, circulating online is incalculable, many of which are sexual [5]. When there is a large circulation of content considered obscene, you begin to think how to regulate it . The term obscene refers to something that seriously offends the sense of decency, especially in the area of sexuality. The concept of obscenity, which invests verbal attitudes, gestural modalities and body parts, is not unique but relative and closely related to context’s culture [6]. In Italy a definition of obscene act is contained in art. 529 of the Penal Code, according to which: “For the purposes of criminal law, acts and objects which, according to common feeling, offend modesty are considered obscene” [7]. The perspective of “common feeling”, however, leaves room for speculation that makes a de facto complex categorization of contents. As Bruno di Marino argues, it is not “easy to establish quickly what pornography is and what it is not. The age-old question of the distinction between eroticism and pornography has not, in fact, been overcome yet” [8].
The concept of obscene for contemporary Western culture, and its relative unacceptability, has led to the need to develop different strategies to see, recognize and remove problematic online content.
For certain platforms, including some of the most popular social media, the selection work is done manually by a mass of underpaid workers, hired as freelancers by external companies such as oDesk. In 2012 one of these workers, in protest against the working conditions to which he was subjected, published the confidential manual that moderators like him must follow in order to evaluate and possibly censor millions of reports that arrive every day from Facebook users [9]. 

Other platforms have preferred to invest in the development of algorithms and Artificial Intelligence to be entrusted with content regulation, teaching them to distinguish independently which to consider obscene and which not. Back to the reasons for the use of dating sites: “Faith in machines is the prerequisite for their use, and this reinforces other cognitive prejudices that want automated responses as inherently more reliable than non-automated ones. The phenomenon is known as automation bias or ‘automation bias’ and has been found in every sphere of computing – from spell-checking software to autopilots – and in every type of person. It is the prejudice that leads us to consider automated information as more reliable than our own experiences, no matter if they conflict with other observations” (Bridle 2019). Delegation to automated processes releases us from any responsibility for error, from any guilt regarding the dissemination of potentially offensive content. We have internalized the computational thinking of algorithms that prefers the simplest answer and requires less cognitive effort. 
As anticipated, the problem of the removal of sexual content, is not at all recent and it turns out that the case that has given it resonance is that of Chatroulette, a website active since 2009 that randomly connects strangers from all over the world through video chat. Already in 2010 the site recorded 1.6 million admissions per month and the problem of sexually obscene images had assumed uncontrollable proportions, so much so that the term penis problem was coined. The inventor of the platform launched an online competition to solve the problem, which was won by a US engineer who proposed to use facial recognition software or eye tracking on incoming video [10].
The investment in this kind of technology has grown subsequently along with the volume of dating sites and communities. “Next-generation porn filtering applications use machine learning technologies based on neural networks, computational linguistics and cognitive computing. They do not attempt to guess what image it is by statistical means, but rather by identifying objects through their relationships […] this effort represents a whole new level of formalization; a new order of images, a grammar of images, an algorithmic system of sexuality, surveillance, productivity, reputation, and computation that relates to the grammarization of social relationships by corporations and governments” (Steyerl 2018).

What is hypothesized is an algorithmic system of sexuality based on the partiality of vision and the autonomous ability to reconstruct and recognize machines: given as input a part of the body framed by the webcam, the machine is left with the ability to reconstruct a context. A sort of reference to the “grammar of porn” that Roland Barthes identifies in the system of positions and body parts of the Marquis de Sade in which: “every part of the body is erotically saturated, the whole is a sort of chemical nucleus, in which every ‘valence’ must remain free: all the Sadian syntax is in search of the total figure” (Barthes 1989, TbA). The intention is common, to create sexual catalogues for images by formalizing isolated parts of the body and their interactions in order to make them recognizable, in one case to their readers and in the other to the technological gaze. 
The structure of technological sex catalogues also reflects contemporary ways of collecting, aggregating and monetizing data-based knowledge. The recognition of body parts allows their “quantification” and responds to the current data-based exchange model typical of the Technocene.
The work done by technology is not only a work of image decoding that ends up influencing the online experience. Not only body parts become autonomous and disconnected from the whole, but their interaction, their presence, becomes quantifiable and combinable with any other information that can be capitalized.
An image, including a sexual one, “is no longer so much a representation as a representative, a mercenary of appearance, a floating commodity composed of texture and surface. People mounted, split, assembled, incorporated. Humans and objects mix in ever-new constellations to become bots or cyborgs. While humans feed the algorithms with affection, thought and sociality, the algorithms give back their sap for what was once called subjectivity”. (Steyerl, 2018).

C.C.

[1] The Technocene. 

[2]
The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.

[3]
Ocular movements.

[4]
Mariano Sardón. 

[5
] What happens every 60 seconds on the web.

[6]
Obscene.

[7]
Obscene Plays and Publications.

[8] Di Marino, B  2013,
Hard media. La pornografia nelle arti visive, nel cinema e nel web,  Johan & Levi Editor, Monza.

[9] Inside Facebook.

[10]
Penis Problem.

Bibliography:

Barthes, R 1989, Sade, Fourier, Loyola, trad. R Miller, University of California Press, Berkley.

Steyerl, H 2018, Duty Free Art, l’arte nell’epoca della guerra civile planetaria, Johan & Levi Editor, Monza.

Bridle, J 2019, Nuova era oscura, Nero, Roma.

Crary, J 2019, Biometrics and the Regulation of the Gaze, in Ahogarse en un mar de datos, La Casa Encendida, Madrid, 2019.

Kinsey, A C 1957, Il comportamento sessuale dell’uomo, Bompiani, Milano.