Augmented Reality Eyewear & the Problem of Porn

Regardless of your moral outlook, porn is a serious and growing sociological ill.  It may not be the same type of problem as crystal meth, child predators, or terrorism.  But it is a problem–and one that will get an order of magnitude worse when AR eyewear hits the market.

How Internet Porn Affects Society Today

The infographic to the right tells the tale.  Twelve percent of all websites, 25% of all search engine requests, and 35% of all downloads are sexually explicit.  Over 40 million viewers in the US alone, where the industry rakes in over $2.64 billion per year.

One of the most telling numbers on this chart, however, is “11.”  That’s the average age at which a boy first encounters explicit material online.  The Daily Mail recently featured an interview with a mother who told how her 11-year-old son’s “entire character” changed after he began watching porn on his laptop in his own bedroom.  She wrote:

If Charlie had been on Class A drugs he couldn’t have been more transformed. He became withdrawn, moody and sullen. He wasn’t sleeping at night. He lost his normal gargantuan appetite. He looked hollow-eyed and listless. He had none of the boyish energy and high spirits that we were all used to.

He began writing things like ‘I hate myself’, or ‘Charlie is s***’ on scraps of paper, newspapers, books, even his bedroom furniture and walls. He drew obscene cartoons with speech bubbles filled with the filthiest words in the dictionary.

I once rolled back his sleeve to find ‘I am disgusting’ scrawled on the inside of his arm. I managed to stop myself from crying until I’d left the room. But the moment the door closed behind me I broke down completely.

After intensive intervention, Charlie recovered.  But millions of other 11-year-olds encounter similar pitfalls.  In the article “Why Shouldn’t Johnny Watch Porn if He Likes?,” Psychology Today explained that “sexual-cue exposure matters more during adolescence than at any other time in life.”  That’s because the age of 11 or 12 is “when billions of new neural connections (synapses) create endless possibilities. … By his twenties, he may not exactly be stuck with the sexual proclivities he falls into during adolescence, but they can be like deep ruts in his brain—not easy to ignore or reconfigure.”  In other words, constant, easy access to porn-on-demand conditions young men to stimuli that real-life interactions can never match, setting them up for frustration and failed relationships later in life.

And indeed, the deleterious impact of internet porn on healthy adult relationships has been well-documented.  As early a 2003, the New Yorker ran a piece on mainstream, well-educated, professional men who found themselves increasingly hooked on explicit internet imagery.  This and other articles found the men correspondingly unable to relate to, or maintain a healthy relationship with, the actual women in their lives.  At the same time, women find it increasingly difficult to find a man whose mind isn’t dominated by such content.

A word to the naysayers.  Granted, not everyone who looks at porn online is going to go off the deep end.  And yes, there are those who argue that it can benefit couples who watch it together.  The data, though, speaks for itself.  Much like alcohol and other vices, there are a lot of people out there who just can’t resist the temptation.

That’s the society into which AR eyewear will soon be introduced.

The beauty of AR is that it liberates content from two-dimensional monitors and sets it free into the physical world.  But will that also be AR’s curse?

Painting the World With Porn

“It’s not news, of course,” the New Yorker wrote in 2003, “that men are into porn—or that the Internet has made it possible to delve into the dirty without slipping into the back room at a video store or hunkering down in a Times Square peep booth.”  But “thanks to the advent of cable modems and DSL connections,” it continued, “the mass consumption of cyberporn has slyly moved from the pathetic stereotypes (fugitive perverts, frustrated husbands) into the potent mainstream (young professionals, perhaps your boyfriend)….  Porn is not merely acceptable; it’s hip.”

Maybe that’s why, when Google[*] launched its Project Glass teaser video on YouTube, porn was a recurrent theme in the user comments.  For example:

you can watch porn on the go!

* * *

Awesome, with this remarkable device it´s possible for me to watch porn while i watch porn on my computer. Life´s good 😀

* * *

download porno on a crowded bus!

The sentiment is easy to understand.  Anonymity has always fueled porn consumption.  First, there were magazines in slick black bags.  Then pay cable stations.  Then the internet.  Now, AR eyewear will enable users to take the content with them outside the house, viewing it in public while still remaining anonymous.  One of the New Yorker‘s interview subjects wrote of the thrill of danger he got by viewing porn in his university’s computer lab, while others worked in adjacent cubicles.  AR-equipped thrill-seekers will be able to take this one step further, and watch explicit content while actually standing in front of and talking to those same colleagues.  At school, work, home, on the bus–no setting will ever again reinforce a social stigma against watching it, because only the wearer will see what’s on his AR lenses.

There’s another reason that viewers are likely to take their AR porn into the public square.  The ability to overlay explicit content on the real world–or, more to the point, on real people–will offer synergies that have been heretofore relegated only to private imaginings.

“I’m just going to say this right now,” blogger Jordan Yerman wrote on the same day the Project Glass video was released. “The dev teams for every online porn outfit on the web are watching the Google Project Glass video below and thinking, ‘we can create an app that matches sex footage from our libraries to the body positions of passersby spotted by augmented-reality glasses.’ I promise you, that’s what they’re thinking.”

Illustration by Owen Smith

That certainly appears to be what the guy depicted in this image is thinking.  The New Yorker carried this illustration with its 2003 article, and it’s probably intended to depict what’s going on in the guy’s mind–i.e., his inability to stop thinking about porn and see this woman for who she is. Today, though, it almost seems prescient, and could pass for a depiction of what he actually sees through AR eyewear that’s running a “layer” of data that automatically overlays explicit imagery on passersby.

Of course, having that layer of data open in one’s eyewear ensures that one will have such explicit thoughts about every person one sees–thereby reinforcing the negative thought patterns that lead to compulsive behavior.  That calls to mind the warning of 17th Century poet Thomas Traherne, who said, “As nothing is more easy than to think, so nothing is more difficult than to think well.”  Walking around in the wrong AR layers will make it even more difficult to think well.

It may also land the unwary in legal trouble.  What happens when someone using such a layer in their eyewear encounters (and therefore sees explicit material overlaid onto) a minor?  The device may (hopefully!) be programmed not to recognize those who are obviously children, but verifying the ages of teens would be beyond its ability.  And the truth is that a depressingly large number of men would use such devices for exactly that purpose.  As my friend and fellow AR enthusiast Joseph Rampolla, a law enforcement officer and consultant specializing in cybercrime, says, “wherever society finds pornography, child pornography is not too far behind.

And what about the effect it will have on women?  They are increasingly forced to deal with men whose unrealistic expectations are fueled by images of models who never say no or have their own needs and standards.  One woman interviewed in the New Yorker article admitted, “I think it will be really rare, and hopefully it will happen, that I can meet a guy who will be happy with only me.”  Others find themselves compromising their own standards to meet men’s unrealistic ones.  And still others find themselves actually participating in the porn industry, sacrificing their own dignity to feed the insatiable demand of the industry’s consumers.

Not that we haven’t seen this coming for awhile.  More than a year ago, I posted an article on this blog facial regonition to what I called “body recognition“–the ability of AR eyewear to record the physical dimensions of passersby and put that footage to God-knows-what use.   I even speculated that “the fashion world will respond by developing clothes that throw off recording devices, much like the checkered camouflage wraps that the auto companies use to shield prototype cars from the paparazzi.”  That conversation started just this week on CNN.

As the ravenous YouTube comments above demonstrate, we are going to encounter these issues as soon as AR eyewear hits the market.  There are those out there who are already working to make the explicit content available for these devices.  Others will line up on Day One to buy the eyewear specifically for that purpose.  But we all have to live in the society that will deal with the consequences.

Again, none of these issues are unique to AR.  But AR will bring an unparalleled degree of anonymity and unique abilities to overlay and create explicit content that will magnify the temptation, compulsion, and dysfunction with which our society is already riddled.


* – To be clear, the issues I discuss in this article are by no means specific to any particular manufacturer or brand of AR eyewear, nor should my comments be read as a criticism of any particular company.  To the contrary, this is something that the whole industry will need to deal with.