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[whitespace] Porn Again

A job for the twenty-first century

By Annalee Newitz

I WAS HANGING OUT with my friend Steve in his office, which is actually a pretty groovy place. He keeps the lights dim and burns lots of incense. On the wall outside his door hangs a sign that reads, "Their sexual harassment is our shop talk." Flashing by on his monitor are endless images of vaginas, penises and the occasional puckered anus.

Steve's job is to write descriptions of each image in a few sentences, then plug his verbiage into an already-engorged database owned by a gigantic porn company 3,000 miles away on the East Coast. He and his co-workers (all women) have given the pornography a nickname. For short, they just call it "cock," often pronounced with an exaggerated New York accent: caaack. When I drop in, I ask Steve casually, "How's the cock going?"

Today the cock is pretty dull--lots of close-up images of people screwing. It's not like the other day when there was a sudden, entertaining flood of images involving cigarettes. So Steve takes a little break, lights another stick of incense, and we begin to philosophize about cock.

We realize that everybody secretly knows pornography is the backbone of Internet content.

Computer industry types like to talk about "backbone" this and "backbone" that with anything vaguely web-related, since that's where all the money is and everybody wants to be a backbone when cash is involved. Cisco and raging upstart Juniper provide routers which are the backbone of the Internet, right? And the elusive, omnipresent Linux cabal is trying to convince us that Linus' little OS is the backbone of Internet code.

But does anybody ever talk about the backbone of Internet content? Nope. And that's because they're usually afraid to admit that it's porn. Yet porn is everywhere, lurking like a networked unconscious under and around every other sort of web content. Porn created the original viral marketing campaign, fashioned the first primitive e-commerce model, and now represents the avant garde of quick-loading images, real-time movies and sounds.

There used to be an online rumor that porn sites were buying up URLs spelled almost exactly like popular destinations--things such as Uahoo or Amazin--to divert innocent e-shoppers with poor typing skills to their dens of electronic indulgence. People are so porn-obsessed that we imagine every "wrong" turn on the web might lead to splashy pictures of pudenda rather than tidy little columns of stock prices. And finally, that's why porn is the Internet info-skeleton, the organizing principle which structures all mainstream content.

Yet the people who work on porn--and there must be tens of thousands of them--are often like Steve, who admits, "I have no idea how to define my job."

I suggest he's the modern equivalent of an assembly line worker, stamping text onto an image in the same way his grandfather might have screwed bolts onto car frames as they moved by on slow conveyor belts. It's the monotony of his work--image, description, database, over and over--that makes me think of assembly lines. And the fact that he has no concrete ideas about where his work is coming from and where it goes.

There's one thing he knows for sure, however. "I could bring down the whole system if I just started mislabeling the cock, ya know?" Steve laughs. "I mean, imagine this young college kid looking for a hot brunette pussy, and when he does a search, all the database feeds him is movies of some guy taking a giant cock in his ass!"

Just think: your most private sexual fantasies are being processed by an assembly line of bored workers. Your "hot XXX pix" are somebody else's drudge work: yet another chunk of iconography to be passed along on an endless content assembly line. It's as if our dreams are being mass produced by machines, a la The Matrix.

Except there are also people who tend the machines. So when you wonder what the hell it means to create "front end"--all the pretty stuff that we look at when Juniper's routers are making the Internet hum along happily--think about Steve. He's assembling another piece of your unconscious mind right now.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd and it won't cost you anything to send her email, violently disagree with her, or write her love letters at [email protected]

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From the January 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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