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Auto Erotic

For pure hot sex appeal, a car has nothing on a computer

By Annalee Newitz

AS I WAS strolling along a Bay Area downtown street recently, I happened upon a giant parade float parked at the curb. I have no idea why it had been built, or what it was supposed to mean, but there it was: a thick plaster column completely covered with naked computer guts. There were trashed motherboards in green and dirty orange, still covered in chips and buses and unidentifiable chunks of circuitry. And there were gleaming hard disks that had been torn from their protective casing, looking oddly wet and vulnerable. It was as if a shop full of computers had been undressed and ravished, their most intimate parts put on display for the titillation of voyeuristic passersby.

In short, this pile of high tech debris was erotic.

But what kind of a dweeb thinks computer hardware is sexy? (OK, so I do, but I'm making a bigger point here.) Even the advertising industry, known for selling everything from soap to cigarettes using sex, generally tries to make computers seem enticing by emphasizing everything but their seductiveness. Computers are touted for their sophistication (think of those "black tie" iMac ads with the Jeff Goldblum voice-over), their hipness (Intel's absurd ads with the dancing workers), or their cross-cultural appeal (IBM ads where people all over the world are united by their use of the Internet).

It's not as if there isn't cultural precedent for making machines erotic. Cars are the number one example of this tendency. Cars are supposed to arouse and gratify us on a visceral level. We plunge through space in fast sports cars, penetrate the natural landscape in SUVs, rub against the snug leather interiors of luxury vehicles, and of course flex our butch muscles in trucks.

With all this technophilia going on, why aren't computers considered sexy, given that they're clearly the most fetishized machines of the early 21st Century? Possibly it has to do with the antisexual reputations of the nerds who love them. But now that there are all these cute young things entering the computer industry, it's hard to deny that saying somebody looks geeky can actually be perceived as flattering.

My theory is that computers aren't viewed carnally because they don't remind us of sexual organs. Maybe there's something vaguely clitoral about a power button, but unlike a stick shift, you don't fondle a power button repeatedly unless you want to break your machine. Computers don't thrust through physical space; they network quietly with one another, moving only in the most miniscule ways imaginable.

Nevertheless, the computer exerts an undeniable erotic pull, especially when you start talking about what people do with each other when they network: cybersex, teledildonics, erotic chat, role playing. How do we reconcile the computer's supposedly sexless hardware with its wild, amorous, lascivious functionality? Maybe we need to accept that sex isn't just about genitals after all. I mean, it's undeniable that everybody needs some car-style lovin', but our still-murky idea of computer eroticism proves that people also want a kind of sexiness that's best represented by networks of streaming data.

I could take the cheesy way out and say that it's "mind sex" (too Star Trek), or "spiritual sex" (too Tantric). I think the answer is more complicated--possibly computers provide metaphors for any kind of lustful desire that doesn't center entirely on pussies and cocks. Information storage, manipulation and networking are all about the passionate, heart-pounding rush of bringing millions of possibilities into play with each other. Instead of grabbing the stick shift, or reaching under the hood, you share data, download and upload, gain access, serve up, compile, run applications, route, translate . . . all terms that can qualify as double-entendres for the kind of sex people have when they're being truly imaginative rather than driving down the same old roads.

So my half-understood arousal as I stood there on 18th Street, looking at computer hardware, was about wondering what strange, hidden combinations of data it might contain. With a car, you always know what to expect. With a computer, you don't--and what could be hotter than that?

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who loves it when people leave their chip boards exposed. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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From the July 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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