Another day on the Internet, another excuse to wonder if and when technology is going to turn the landscape of interpersonal human relationships into some kind of unrecognizable Garden of Simulated Delights. Another chance to speculate whether the world of the future will be populated by people wantonly having sex with robots and other people whispering smutty things to Siri. A day looms on the horizon, maybe, in which everyone will exist like rhesus monkeys trapped in a sterile lab of loneliness and isolation, clinging to our devices and yet feeling no comfort.
What's the alternative, though? Is there some way that technology can enhance our relationships, making them easier, more exciting and more straightforward? It definitely seems likely: it's fairly inarguable that technology already is changing the way we interact romantically with one another — and the ways in which we process, capture, cherish and recover from those interactions — for better and for worse. So, what does the future hold? Well, according to the trend-spotting shop Sparks & Honey, a lot of things. (One of those things is robot sex.)
In collaboration with the Museum of Sex, Sparks & Honey has released a report on the future of sex and relationships. It examines "three key currents of change that are shaping modern relationship" — technology, increasing public acceptance of nontraditional relationships and sexual practices, and the mainstreaming of kink — and extrapolates the Future of Sex and Love from there. Some of the prognostics are fairly predictable — the report, for instance, predicts that flirting apps and relationship rating apps will proliferate and become commonplace: "Sex and relationships are one of the fertile new frontiers for tracking and measurement," reads the report. "Big [bedroom] data from sensors and apps, such as SpreadSheets, provide insights into your 'performance' and why relationships work or fail."
I was, at first, kind of skeptical — I don't know of anyone who seriously applies data analytics to their sex or dating life. The consensus of my peers and colleagues is that Lulu, the foremost dating ranking app, is creepy, and I've only ever heard of people using SpreadSheets on assignment. I myself once downloaded a dating app with the intent of writing about it, but it was so boring and useless that I had absolutely nothing to say. (Side note: while using the app, I was supposed to be rewarded with a grilled cheese because I had showed affection well. I was never given a grilled cheese.) There's a reason that the age-old adage "It's not you, it's me" exists: because breakups are hard, and people aren't good at telling one another what, exactly, went wrong. Expressing you dissatisfaction openly can be daunting, and I have a hard time believing that some kind of relationship or sex rating app would change that. When I told Sparks & Honey CEO Terry Young about my misgivings, he responded that quantifying experiences is already becoming ubiquitous — we rate our drivers, our masseuses, our dining experiences, etc. — and there's no reason data analytics wouldn't take the leap to the realm of romance.
Programs are being developed, he continued, and the shift seems to be happening already. "A mechanism of quantification is coming to everything," he told me. "Understanding things through data is omnipresent in everyone's lives." In addition, technology (and the way we utilize it) evolves really rapidly: Young pointed out that just a decade ago we'd be baffled by the idea of photographing one's meals for hundreds of friends and acquaintances to gaze upon, and now we spend all of our Sundays merrily Instagramming eggs benedict. A lot of the tech-based behavior we engage in now is completely creepy, but we're used to it. Maybe in a decade we won't think Lulu and its ilk are so gross after all; it's likely, he posits, that we'll become accustomed to it. "A lot of people won't want to participate, but they won't have a choice."
The report also mentioned that breaking up will change: "Boy meets girl; girl becomes Facebook friends with boy; boy and girl hook up after finding each other through Bang With Friends; boy likes some other girl's Instagram photo; girl unfriends boy... Relationships implode as fast as they begin." Finding someone new, moving on, is easier than ever — and that ease will only increase as time goes on. Go through a breakup, reactivate you OKCupid profile. Soothe your heartbreak with a stream of smiling faces on Tinder, etc. However, the report doesn't address the ways in which technology memorializes relationships, which has rendered moving on sort of impossible. Bits of our social media accounts become monuments to our failed relationships; relationships leave tangible remnants now. In our interview, Young termed it "stickiness" — finding new people will become increasingly easy, but separating oneself from old relationships will be much more of a challenge.
And a new romance prospect isn't the only thing that's become easier to locate: finding people who share your specific kinks and predilections is also easier than ever, which has already resulted in the proliferation of microcommunities. The Internet's facilitated the formation of kink communities in a really unprecedented way. "It used to be hard to find fringe activity," said Young. "Now you can do so casually... As soon as you have an idea, you can find someone who has the same idea and create a microcommunity." The bizarre democratization of everything online is working to erode the concept of dominant, "mainstream" sexual behavior. The report seems to credit that for the growing interest in, and popularity of, certain fetishes and aspects of kink culture. It's likely that public acceptance of kink will increase more and more rapidly as time elapses.
That's all well and good, you're probably thinking at this point, but, Callie, you promised us robot sex and then you talked about Lulu for like four hours. Okay, fine: ROBOT SEX THERE SHALL BE! It's on the horizon, guys! And Mr. Young isn't the only one who thinks so — several AI theorists have said that it will become a commonplace practice within the next century. "It's a major thing that's being developed in AI and robotic circles," says Young. There have been panels on it; there have been books written about it. Several sex machines exist already — one example touted by leading robot sexuality lecturer Laura G. Duncan in an interview with Thought Catalog has been eloquently dubbed "Fuckzilla." "Fuckzilla is basically designed like Johnny Five, she explained. "It has appendages, and one arm is a penetrating dildo. The other is a chainsaw that's had the chain removed, and it's been replaced with these silicon molded tongues that make a circular motion." In a more traditionally romantic take on the matter, David Levy, the author of Love and Sex With Robots, speculates that people will be marrying machines by 2050.
A less drastic (i.e., more likely to be used by humans soon) representation of this same concept is teledildonics, or sex toys that can be controlled by a computer. "Sexual devices that you can remotely control already exist, but they'll catch on more," Young told me. "Within the next 2-3 years, stores offering devices of that sort will open up." Frankly, I'm surprised that the proliferation of teledildonic apps hasn't started already. It's something that could easily sync up to any extant model of any sex toy, and it could very easily be monetized for long-distance relationships — or, eventually, long-distance casual encounters. Which is crazy to think about! You could potentially meet some person online and have remote sex with them without ever meeting them in person. If teledildonics do catch on, as Sparks & Honey predicts they will, the technology will have serious and fascinating repercussions on our understanding of sex and intimacy. For years, feminist and queer theorists have argued that the theory of biological determinism that links sexual intercourse, sexuality, gender and reproductive capacity is a harmful and hugely limiting illusion. So, what if two strangers can have sex without touching? That illusory link between those four categories will be disrupted even further.
It's easy to look at a more computerized, automated, mechanistic take on romance and sexuality and extrapolate that dating in the future will be somehow cold and unfeeling. Objectively, the concept of an Ex-Rating App and a Fuckzilla machine for home use are both slightly terrifying (which makes me more nervous — the idea of getting a 3.0/10.0 public rating from an ex or facing down a tongue-chainsaw — I cannot say). But the easily-achievable plurality of experiences offered by linking tech with sex/romance is something to be optimistic about.
Yes, in the future we might all be weird, nostalgic, ex-quantifying creeps — but we'll also have less restrictive ideas and prohibitions around what constitutes sex, how and when it's appropriate to discuss sexuality and what sort of sexual behavior is "normal." In addition, sex-rating apps like SpreadSheets do have the potential to foster a more open and honest discussion about one's sexual wants and needs; on a broader scale, too, connecting with people via flirting apps and Internet microcommunities can help forge bonds between similar-minded (sexually and otherwise) people. Even as we turn to our devices for entertainment, information and — perhaps — eventually sex, we'll also have the tools necessary to form meaningful or at least pleasurable connections more quickly and with greater ease.
Image by Jim Cooke, of course.