“Teledildonics” by Howard Rheingold (full text)

by | December 23, 2015

Howard Rheingold, the famous critic and seer of the possibilities of virtual reality, penned a famous essay on ‘teledildonics’ for the now defunct publication ‘Mondo 2000’ all the way back in 1990. Although his predictions regarding the timeline for the development of fully immersive virtual worlds and their pairing with ‘teledildonics’ are clearly out, his essay does raise some fascinating philosophical and social issues that will become ever more pertinent as we finally move closer to genuine ‘haptic sex’ within virtual reality.

As no online copy of the essay existed, a blogger by the name of Jane Fader went as far as contacting Howard Rheingold who kindly submitted to her a full copy she then published at her website. I have no permission to re-print it here, but I am assuming that Mr Rheingold (nor Jane Fader) will object to me helping to preserve it for posterity here as well (and I will of course take it down if either do object). Apart from outlining the logical endpoint of advances in virtual reality as it relates to sex, the interesting aspect of the essay for me is the raising of the question as to what happens to the sexual marketplace, and sexual desire itself, when anyone can be (as sexy as) anyone, and have sex with anyone? Rheingold doesn’t really attempt to answer the question in this brief essay, but hopefully many others will in the coming years.

Teledildonics by Howard Rheingold

The first fully functional teledildonics system will probably not be a fucking machine. You will not use erotic telepresence technology in order to have sex with machines. Twenty years from now, when portable telediddlers are ubiquitous, people will use them to have sexual experiences with other people, at a distance, in combination and configurations undreamt of by precybernetic voluptuaries. Through the synthesis of virtual reality technology and telecommunication networks, you will be able to reach out and touch someone—or an entire population—in way humans have never before experienced.

Dildonics—it had to happen. It is the unnatural fruit of the marriage of lust and craft. The word “dildonics” was coined by visionary computer pontiff Ted Nelson in 1974. Ted is best known as the inventor of hypertext and designer of the world’s oldest unfinished software project, appropriately named “Xanadu.” As originally conceived, it described a machine invented by San Francisco hardware hacker How Wachspress: a device capable of converting sound into tactile sensations. (Patent #3,875,932). The erogenic effect depends upon where you, the consumer, decide to interface your anatomy with the tactile stimulator. Picture yourself a couple decades hence, getting dressed for a hot night in the virtual village. Before you climb into a suitably padded chamber and put on your headmounted display, you slip into a lightweight—eventually, one would hope diaphanous—bodysuit. It would be something like a body stocking, but with all the intimate strangeness of a condom. Embedded in the inner surface of the suit, using a technology that does not yet exist, is an array of intelligent effectors. These effectors are ultra-tiny vibrators of varying degrees of hardness, hundreds of them per square inch, that can receive and transmit a realistic sense of tactile presence in the same way the visual and audio displays transmit a realistic sense of visual and auditory presence. You can reach out your virtual hand, pick up a virtual block, and by running your fingers over the object, feel the surfaces and edges, by means of the effectors that exert counterforces against your skin. The counterforces correspond to the kinds of forces you would encounter when handling a non-virtual object of the specified shape, weight, and texture. You can run your cheek over (virtual) satin and feel the difference when you encounter (virtual) human flesh. Or you can gently squeeze something soft and pliable and feel it stiffen and rigidify under your touch.

Every nook and protuberance, every plane and valley and knob of your body’s surface, will require its own processor. Technically this is the limiting factor in the evolution of teledildonics: the development of extremely powerful computers to perform the enormous number of calculations required to monitor and control hundreds of thousands of sensors and effectors. Fiber optic networks can already handle the very high bandwidth that telepresence requires. But it may take decades to develop the mesh of tiny, high-speed, safe but powerful tactile effectors. Today’s vibrators are in the ENIAC era.

The tool I am suggesting is much more than a fancy vibrator, but I suggest we keep that archaic name. A more sober formal description of the technology would be “tactile telepresence,” and it is much more than a gleam in the eye of a horny hardware hacker. Part of the infrastructure for a dildonic system exists already in the form of computerized clothing and head-mounted displays that permit people to enter the fully three-dimensional illusion of an artificial reality.

Teledildonics in inevitable given the rate of progress in the enabling technologies of shape-memory alloys, fiber-optics, and super-computing. Enormous market-driven forces will be unleashed when sex at a distance becomes possible. Questions of morality, privacy, personal identity, and even the very definition of Eros will be up for grabs.

If everybody can look as beautiful, sound as sexy, and feel as nubile and virile as everyone else, what then will have erotic meaning?

If you can experience sexual frissons or deep physical communion with another person with no possibility of pregnancy or VD, what then of conventional morality?

If you can map your hands to your puppet’s legs, and let your fingers do the walking through cyberspace, there is no reason to believe you won’t be able to map your genital effectors to your manual sensors and have direct genital contact by shaking hands. What will happen to social touching when nobody knows where anybody else’s erogenous zones are located?

Clearly we are on the verge of a whole new semiotics of mating. Privacy and identity and intimacy will become tightly coupled into something we don’t have a name for yet. In Unix systems, files and programs and groups of users can be grouped into nested hierarchies by a system of “permissions.”

The protocols of passion are something we can only guess at now. In cyberspace, your most public persona—the way you want the world to see you—will be “universally readable,” in Unix terms. If you decide to join a group at a collegial or peer level, or decide to become informationally intimate with an individual or group, you will share public keys to your identity permission access codes. The physical commingling of genital sensations might come to be regarded, in time, as a less intimate act than the sharing of your innermost self-representations.

Finally, with all those layers of restricted access to self-representations that may differ radically from layer to layer, what happens to the self? Where does identity lie? And with our bodily sensations, as Ted Nelson might say, will our communication devices be regarded as “its”…or will they be part of “us”?