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Swinging the Body Electric: The Sextensions of Man

Here’s how science helped love throughout history.

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, love isn’t just in the air; it’s in the wires too. And boy, was it a long time coming.

Ever since dudes began posting dick pics—the island of Astypalaia off Greece has some of the world’s oldest cocky graffiti, dating back over 2,500 years—people have been trying to extend the reach of their private parts as far as possible.

Sigmund Freud, that famous phallic thinker, wrote in 1930 about what he called prothesengott—the “prosthetic god” to which humanity subconsciously and irrationally aspires, resplendently dependent on his “auxiliary organs.” This idea of using technology to augment our senses and reach beyond our natural bodies comes down to us in pop culture via media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s tellingly-titled 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt

Technology historian Tom Standage writes that the telegraph, which was originally developed for military applications, was already helping span the miles between lovers in the early nineteenth century. In at least one instance, he notes, it even brought and bound them together: according to the 1848 book, Anecdotes of the Telegraph, a young heiress and her suitor cemented their union by exchanging vows through the wires between Boston and New York.

In 1885, the then already famous Thomas Edison, who also happened to be a very skilled electric telegraph operator in his youth, proposed to Mina Miller by tapping out the question in Morse code into her hand, to which she excitedly but reservedly answered yes—also in code, of course. Alas, history doesn’t tell us how else the lovers’ nimble fingers served them after the wedding.

Mina Edison by Wikimedia Commons

But technology has also rendered love’s labors lost: when a telegraph network was being set up between England and Scotland, where “marriages of declaration” were legal without a minister or magistrate in attendance, critics worried that eloping lovers’ parents could alert authorities ahead of their arrival. “What an enemy science is to romance and love!” decried one observer.

Standage called telegraph networks “the Victorian Internet,” because they presaged the advent of today’s more hectic and frenetic wired world by over a century. While much has changed, some things remain the same: technology has always been a foil and fodder for romance. This is certainly true now more than ever before, as the tools that make the world a smaller place for everyone are also stretching the boundaries of intimacy in more ways than Freud and Edison could have dreamed of.

Surprising absolutely no one, the idea of digital long-distance sex really came into its own at the same time that the Internet and the World Wide Web were on the rise. Information technology pioneer Ted Nelson—who coined the term “hypertext” as well as “teledildonics”—told SF Weekly in a 2015 interview that there were “a lot of frontier fields in computers (in the 1970’s), and one of them that it was obvious was coming was sexual.”

Image from Camsoda

Almost half a century later, we now have wireless devices such as the Lovesense Lush, a WiFi- and Bluetooth-enabled vibrator that really puts love in—or, should we say, on—the air: “Let him control you… From ANYWHERE!” says the company’s promotional material. And then there’s the CamSoda BlowCast, dubbed “The iTunes of Blowjobs”: the pressure and movement of a performer’s mouth are digitally recorded and can then be downloaded recreated through a handheld device.

For a more full-body experience, the future might look something like the Tokyo University Human Augmentation Lab’s “Chameleon Mask,” a wearable LCD screen that covers the wearer’s face and substitutes it with that of a remotely-located user. When you’re with someone wearing the device, it’s as if you’re talking and interacting with someone else who isn’t all there: the wearer becomes little more than a physical surrogate for the disembodied user. It’s not quite Ghost in the Shell just yet, though it’s a firm step in that direction.

Photo by Jun Rekimoto of University of Tokyo

But soon enough, we might not need another person on the other end at all.

Deepfake, a sophisticated artificial intelligence-based video manipulation technique, enables you to swap out a person’s face in a video with somebody else’s. The result is so seamless and realistic that Deepfake videos have been banned from sites such as Pornhub, Reddit, and Twitter.

Header Image from Lil Miquela

Artificial intelligence has also finally crossed over uncanny valley into surprisingly lifelike depictions of people who don’t even exist: Lil Miquela looks so real that she’s a bona fide Instagram celebrity and influencer with over 1.5 million followers.

Which is all really just to say that we might not have to wait too long before the Valentine’s Day comes when we find ourselves saying, “Love is in the AI.”

Timothy James M. Dimacali is a science journalist and science fictionist. He received his MS in Science Writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after serving close to eight years as Science and Technology Editor of GMA News Online.