Irving and Teledildonics: Michael Olson

“Humanity has this indomitable urge to surround ourselves in elaborate fantasy worlds.” 

On the day I finished reading a review copy of John Irving’s new novel, In One Person (launching on May 8th), I received guest blog content from author, Michael Olson. Olson’s debut novel, Strange Flesh, is about sex and gamesPublishers Weekly describes Strange Flesh as a “head-spinning thriller” that “takes us down a rabbit hole of kinky cybersex and multilevel mystery.”  It’s a “complex, cutting edge debut.”  Irving’s book, on the other hand, chronicles the life of a bisexual man.

In his latest novel, Irving tackles the various evolving sexual attitudes we’ve all either observed, participated in, or endured from the 1960s through today. On par with his previous novels, Irving provides brilliant food for thought on the diverse sexual appetites that exist, regardless of who may or may not be comfortable with them. He reminds us, as others have before him, that there is a specific kind of unnecessary madness involved in trying to deny the truth about who we are as individuals. It’s a losing battle and a fruitless crusade.  

Olson’s novel brings up another side of sexuality that sits on the border of what many folks consider “normal,” even in 2012.  It involves teledildonics, something I had to look up.  Per, teledildonics is:
Sex in a computer simulated virtual reality, especially computer-mediated sexual interaction between the virtual reality presences of two humans.  

I’m thinking it’s akin to making Ken and Barbie get it on in the Barbie Country Camper … times a million.   

According to the dictionary, teledildonics is not yet possible except in the rather limited form of erotic conversation.  Apparently, the term is “widely recognized in the virtual reality community as a ha ha only serious projection of things to come.”  Olson, a Harvard graduate who worked in investment banking and software engineering before taking a master’s degree from NYU’s Interactive Technology Program, knows a thing or two about it …. from the technical perspective.  When I became familiar with Olson’s novel and read about the topic, it struck me as highly creative and different, the buzz words that drive Aberration Nation.  

In response to the question of why bisexuals are rarely represented in literature, Irving said, “I just know that sexual outsiders have always appealed to me: writers are outsiders–at least we’re supposed to be detached.  Well, I find sexual outsiders especially engaging. There is the gay brother in The Hotel New Hampshire; there are the gay twins (separated at birth) in A Son of the Circus; there are transsexual characters in The World According to Garp, and in A Son of the Circus, and now again (this time more developed as characters) in In One Person. I like these people; they attract me, and I fear for their safety–I worry about who might hate them and wish them harm.” 

Both Irving’s In One Person and Olson’s Strange Flesh provoke thought, and effortlessly pry open the mind to new levels of consciousness. 
In honor of Irving, one of my absolute favorite authors, I’m pleased to welcome Olson to talk to us a bit about the cultural response to teledildonics, which surely represents a new level of disgusting in the minds of those who would condemn Irving’s beloved characters.
Here’s what Olson had to say:
“Wait… you don’t seriously think people are actually going to do that?
“Well, actually, they already are. It’s a niche, but it’s growing.”
“But that’s… that’s disgusting.”
Since the publication of my novel Strange Flesh, I’ve been having such conversations a lot. The book is a pretty sanguinary thriller featuring a certain quotient of outlandish violence and a fair amount of material related to the Marquis de Sade. But the element that some readers find far more disturbing is the technology around which much of the action revolves: virtual sex, otherwise known as teledildonics.
The erotic potential of virtual reality has been apparent since its very inception. Soon, using a head mounted display and some means of body tracking, denizens of online worlds such as Second Life will be able to immerse themselves far more fully than they currently can with a traditional desktop computer. In such places one can easily find partners interested in all kinds of salacious exploration. Indeed there are whole worlds explicitly dedicated to adult activity. Adding into the mix special mechanisms designed to simulate the human anatomy could help to render a compelling sensual experience. Initially not much like the real thing, but our tools are always subject to refinement.
I come from a technical milieu where attitudes to teledildonics range from, “When can we have it? Seriously, when? This was promised to us,” to “But will it make iPhone jealous?” In fact, we already see a small industry developing to serve the nascent market for artificial sex. That said, the state of the art remains rather exotic, and I should have better foreseen that the idea seems a bit outré to many.
And yet, I can’t help but think there’s a failure of imagination behind that scandalized “disgusting.”
Granted, at first blush, the notion of having sex with an appliance might seem off-putting. Though of course, we’ve employed various inanimate objects in sexual intercourse from time immemorial. But something about an articulated mechanism seems altogether stranger than the basically inert form of a vibrator. A robot’s position on the continuum between object and being makes them feel uncanny.
But let’s be sure not to confuse the tool with the medium. Precious few people putting household items to alternative uses are in any way sexually attracted to socks or produce. The romance of the moment occurs in the realm of fantasy. We close our eyes and immerse ourselves in a world of our imagination. To say that using a device for sex is disgusting is like saying that minutely inspecting tiny ink markings on a bound sheaf of paper is intrinsically tedious.

The object is just an interface. The real action happens in our minds.

True, teledildonics does tend to bring some of this knee-jerk opprobrium onto itself. One can find plenty of videos and sites online where the robot really is the sexual object. Certain device bondage sites make use of an eye-opening array of automata to service their particular fetish. One to which many observers simply cannot relate. But there’s nothing inherent in the technology that condemns it to be used in that way.
The holy grail of teledildonics is not to create an erotic impulse in people toward machines. It’s for the machines to serve as a means of connecting two humans. The goal of the medium will be for the mechanism, the tool, to disappear as much as possible. When watching a film, we don’t sit and gaze at the projector reels turning.
I propose we try to reconceive sex interfaces as a means to enable a novel medium of sensual communication. Like a camera and projector. Just a new kind of brush with which we’ll be able to paint our fantasies. In doing so, I think we’ll transform them from strange and alien machines to anodyne gadgets that allow us to form a richer kind of connection online. Hasn’t our frigid cyberspace been too long without a sense of touch?
Humanity has this indomitable urge to surround ourselves in elaborate fantasy worlds. To exercise our imaginations. We tell stories. We make images. And we voraciously consume them as though they’re essential to life. The weird folds of our brains hate the harshness of unadorned reality, and we’ll take just about any pretext to embellish it, reform it, or even leave it altogether. We are easily seduced: that page of minutely configured ink can make us weep inconsolably at some ephemeral tragedy. That whirl of sequential images through light can yank our hearts into our throats.
Anytime someone comes up with a new way for us to exercise our overactive imaginations, a new way for storytellers to weave their worlds, it spreads like wildfire. So as we imagine devices that indulge what is perhaps humankind’s strongest, most fundamental drive, does that really sound so marginal and bizarre, even disgusting?

To me it sounds inevitable. No medium has ever remained chaste. And I for one will be eager to see what we paint with this new brush.


I read another great book recently, The Giver by Lois Lowry. It was about a world with no choices, no room for imaginative brushes, no experimentation, no real emotion, and no chance for making a right or wrong decision. No differences. No agony. No pain. No love. Everyone was safe.

It turned out to be a nightmare. 

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