Friday, January 21, 2005

Virtual or Reality?

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #252, January 21, 2005)

It’s fashionable these days to talk about how technology is ruining leather and BDSM culture. Some say it started with the invention of the videocassette recorder—before which, since most people didn’t have film projectors at home, it was necessary to leave one’s residence, go to a theater, and actually mingle with other people in order to watch a porn film. With the VCR, one could watch a porn video in the privacy—and isolation—of one’s living room.

Then someone invented telephone sex lines, which subsequently morphed into chatrooms—before which it was necessary to leave one’s residence, go to a bar (or a bathhouse, park or dungeon) and mingle with other people in order to find, um, companionship.

Then came dial-a-trick, which became click-a-trick, which meant that one no longer needed to leave the house in order to cruise for sex or BDSM play partners.

But, so the argument goes, chatrooms are at worst a poor replacement for, and at best often a shoddy introduction to, actual real-life community experience.

To a great extent I agree with statements of this kind. But, on the other hand, technology and new inventions are not necessarily always bad. I’m glad , for example, that somebody invented the technology that allows people to read this column over the web.

In fact, I have a list of new inventions I’d like to see and technologies I wish would be taken further.

The first VCR I ever owned seemed great at the time. But my second VCR made the first seem primitive. Why? Because it had a remote control that allowed me to start, stop, pause, fast-forward and rewind from the comfort of my chair.

Let’s take that concept further: I want a VCR remote control for my life. Just think—if I caught a fleeting glimpse of a handsome man in a crowd, I could put life on pause and get a better look. Or, if I had too much to do and not enough time to do it, I could put everything else on pause until I caught up.

Boring meeting? Fast-forward through it. Really great vacation? Hit rewind and enjoy it all again—fast-forwarding through the mundane parts, of course.

Another example of technology that needs to be taken further is a feature of Adobe Photoshop and other digital-image-editing software: the cloning tool. Its on-screen icon looks like a tiny rubber stamp. It allows one to digitally sample a portion of an image and then duplicate (“clone”) it anywhere else on the image.

To see the cloning tool in action is to watch magic happen. Perhaps there’s a picture taken on a recent vacation that would be scenic except for the telephone poles and power lines. Simply sample the sky and clone away the wires going through the air. Then sample the trees and clone in some more trees in place of the telephone poles.

I want somebody to invent a cloning tool for real life. It would truly be a tool of a thousand uses. Imagine the infomercial: “Did you get mad and put your fist through the sheetrock? Simply sample another portion of the wall and clone away the damage! Teenagers: Did your face break out before a heavy date? No more Clearsil—clone away blemishes instantly! (Also works on scars, wrinkles and bags under the eyes!) Male-pattern baldness? Clone some hair into that bald spot! The possibilities are limited only by your imagination!”

Adobe Photoshop is based on technology that was originally invented by the innovative and creative folks at NASA for enhancing photographs from outer space. But not all inventions are technological ones—and when it comes to inventions, the innovative and creative people in the leather and BDSM communities have come up with some great ones over the years, too.

The invention of the hanky code, for example, adds interest and conversational opportunities to cruising while also being a great timesaver.

Another great invention to come out of the dungeon is the safeword, a means of quick communication during a scene. One of the most common safeword scenarios is modeled on the metaphor of a traffic light: When asked, a response of “green” means everything is fine, so keep going. Say “yellow” and the action slows down or temporarily halts while people check up on you and see how you’re doing. Say “red” and that’s it—the action stops, scene over.

So actually, in the dungeon one can have the real-life functions of the some of the buttons on the VCR remote control. Saying “yellow” is like pressing “pause” and saying “red” is like pressing “stop” or “eject.” Now if we could just figure out the fast-forward and reverse thing.

The problem is that safewords don’t work outside the dungeon. Believe me, I have tried. But when my car is spinning out of control, or the doctor has just told me the lesion is malignant, or the pipes have burst and are flooding the basement, yelling “RED!” at the top of my lungs doesn’t do any good.

All of this, to me, makes the concept of dungeon play that much more valuable. We call it “play” to distinguish it from real torture experiences, like what happened in Nazi concentration camps or more recently at Abu Graibh. A “scene” in a dungeon is like a scene in a play, except that it’s participatory theater instead of happening on a stage.

Both live theater and dungeon play are “real” in that they involve flesh-and-blood humans (as opposed to the celluloid image of a movie or the video image of videogames and chatrooms). Both dungeon play and live theater are illusory in the sense that they are exercises in role-playing. Both require what theatrical textbooks call “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

But illusory or not, once disbelief has been suspended both live theater and dungeon play can be profound and life-changing experiences. Someday virtual-reality technology may well evolve to the point where it can offer the same level of experience. Someday I might have real-life fast-forward and rewind buttons—and my real-life cloning tool, too.

But for now, technology only goes so far. And chatrooms and the internet can offer only a shadow of the richness and transforming power of real-life involvement in the real-life leather/BDSM community.

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