Sometimes reading only slightly old books is quite unsettling. In Dream Machines, a book I love on the whole, Nelson quotes what apparently used to be the motto of Electronic Arts, “a software company”, now one of the major producers of video games.

Software should be simple, hot and deep. SIMPLE: the user can get into it easily. HOT: it should be excitingly interactive. DEEP: you’ll be able to use it for years; it will have “new folds” to discover, and thus a long shelf life.

What a ridiculously explicit description of a very objectifying male view of sex with a woman. Men seem to love thinking of machines as somehow equivalent to or replacements for women. Ships are “she”, Turing (though not sexually attracted to women) conceived a test of a kind of AI where a computer would simulate a woman, guys try to create digital beauties and virtual girlfriends. But why? I don’t get it. I wouldn’t even call a dildo “he”. My machines are its, my computer is sexless.

I can’t find this alleged motto of Electronic Arts on the web at all so presumably they came to their senses and eradicated it from history. It’s cited on page 25 of Dream Machines by Ted Nelson, in the 1987 edition. Electronic Arts was founded in 1982.

19 thoughts on “why are sex and computers conflated?

  1. Tore Vesterby

    I have a gut feeling that this issue seems to pop up in groups that have a dominant male population. I.e. 17th century ship-crews, software and game companies today. I think the guys are trying to balance out the gender difference by trying to add female pronouns into their discourse at every oppotunity they get. This could also be one of the reasons, so many guys like to play women in online RPG’s – that and the eye-candy factor. Maybe we’re closer to frogs than we like to think, we can’t spontaneously change sex, but we can replace the absence of one sex with objectifications and language.

  2. Jon

    Hard to explain this, but I¬¥got two laptops, a Siemens Lifebook and a small Powerbook. The Siemens definetly is a “he”, the mac is a “she”. Most of the time I use the PC, but I feel better with the mac 🙂

  3. Frasca

    Well, in different languages computers do have gender. In French, it is un ordinateur, therefore male. The Spaniards followed the French term, un ordenador, male again. But the predominant term in Latin America is la computadora, a she. Computers have always been feminine to me, but I guess my mother tongue is to blame 🙂

  4. nick

    Iberian computers are from Mars, Latin American computers are from Venus.

  5. Francois Lachance

    Jill,
    I am with you on the erotic component of the discourse quoted. But re-reading the passage closely, I don’t quite understand the presumption of heterosexuality.

    I’m not quite sure that there is a diegesis that goes from “simple” to “deep” through “hot”.

    Folds — the anatomic analogy works for the several human genders so far identitified

    Temperature — excitement, flush and rush can be gender-neutral experiences

    “Getting into it” — a very Sixties expression along the lines of “really digging it”? The immersive aspect may be a feature recognized by bakers as they recall kneading dough. Or by people who can (re)imagine the sensuality of giving or receiving massages. I think a reading of a generalized eros at work is supported by the textual evidence in the passage quoted since it references the “the user” and not an appendage of the “user”. It is my impression that the male discourse of sexual objectification doesn’t readily substitute a whole for a part.

    The passage does make a good screen for testing assumptions that one might hold about the relationship between cognition, embodiment, technology and sexuality.

  6. diane

    Sure sounds like Ted Nelson talking. And it sure sounds like he’s stretching to make a point. Why the stretch takes him down this unfortunate road is a question. But are there other examples that make this a real discursive phenom, something more than just Nelson’s idiosyncratic way of expressing himself?

  7. Jill

    Fran?ßois, you’re right, I shouldn’t presume heterosexuality. All that seems clear is that the speaker is male. And no, I haven’t found other examples, the rest of the book is brilliant, I’m really enjoying rereading it – and oh I don’t know, maybe I’m overreacting. It just annoys me so when computers and technology are described with such an assumption that you know, we’re all men. I mean, sure, technology’s “sexy”, it’s just that I’d like that to stay a metaphor 😉

    Btw, in Norwegian, computers are masculine. But then again, in Bergen words only come in two genders: masculine and neutrum, and anyway, that kind of gender doesn’t seem (to me) to have a lot to do with thinking of an object as related to a human gender. The sun is feminine in the rest of Norway and masculine in Bergen and I don’t think it really makes much difference to the way we think about the sun.

  8. mark bernstein

    I still thing you’re wrong about Turing, and unfair.

    The point of the Turing test is not sexual; the point is that “artificial intelligence”, if it is to be studied, needs to be removed from the realm of mysticism and vitalism. Turing is insisting that “intelligent” be defined as an observable, in contrast to many contemporaries and a surprising number of current commentators, who basically insist that an intelligent computer should have to demonstrate that it has a soul.

    The task — acting the part of one gender or another — is something we assume that anyone can do reasonably well, but no machine (and no animal) in 1945 could sustain for even a brief interval.

  9. nick

    I think you’re right that woman-simulation isn’t the point of the Turing test, Mark. But, for one thing, despite the suggestion in the title of the paper, Turing didn’t actually define intelligence or try to answer the question “Can machines think?” He replaced that question (“These questions replace our original…”) with “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this [imitation] game?” and “Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?”

    Also, whether or not gender-imitation is essential to the philosophy of mind discussion in the paper, it seems interesting for those who have read the essay (and thought about the overall issues) to also think about the discussion of gender in it. On that note, this bit of Turing’s discussion seems quite interesting — he’s writing about how to define “machines” so that people can’t be considered machines:

    “One might for instance insist that the team of engineers should be all of one sex, but this would not really be satisfactory, for it is probably possible to rear a complete individual from a single cell of the skin (say) of a man. To do so would be a feat of biological technique deserving of the very highest praise, but we would not be inclined to regard it as a case of ‘constructing a thinking machine’.”

  10. Lars

    Godt observert, Jill, men eg trur du undervurderer det grammatiske kj??nnet — ikkje s?• unaturleg, all den tid b?•de engelsk og bergensk har felleskj??nn. P?• nynorsk er til d??mes ei (data-)maskin (oftast) hokj??nn, og kallar du noko for “ho” ofte nok, er det vanskeleg ?• tenkja p?• det som heilt kj??nnslaust. Om ikkje bergensarar tenkjer annleis om sola, s?• vil eg meina det vert ei heilt anna sol om nokon med ein annan dialekt skulle finna p?• ?• kalla ho “solen”. N?•r det gjeld skip, er situasjonen meir innvikla. Ein b?•t er nemleg ein “han” dei fleste stader langs norskekysten (observer til d??mes namna p?• fiskeb?•tar), medan st??rre skip er “ho” — kan hende ein arv fr?• dei latinske spr?•ka?
    Likevel, som fleire har vore inne p?•: Seksualiseringa av samhandlinga med maskinene kjem neppe fr?• kj??nnet til objektet, men fr?• (det framherskande) kj??nnet til subjektet. Alts?• mennene. N?•r dei ser maskiner som ekvivalent med eller erstatning for kvinner, er det vel heller slik at dei ser kvinna som ei maskin enn maskina som ei kvinne.

  11. Francois Lachance

    Elsewhere as part of a thread on dichotomies, I have considered some of the implications fo the gender dynamics in Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”. See Humanist 17.613 http://lists.village.virginia.edu/lists_archive/Humanist/v17/0595.html

    Recall that the imitation game has three players. The interrogator “may be of either sex”. Turing’s experiment is usually read as the machine replacing one of the imitators in the game (thanks in part to accepting Turing’s assertion of the equivalency of questions: “Can machines think?”; “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitiation game?”; “Are there discrete state machines which would do well?”; “Let’s us fix our attention on one particular digital computer C. Is it true that by modifying this computer to have an adequate storage, sutiably increasing its speed of action, and providing it with an appropriate program, C can be made to play satisfactorily the part of A in the imitation game, the part of B being taken by a man?”.

    “A” tries to cause the interrogator to make the wrong identification. B attempts to help the interrogator make the correct identification (i.e. which of A _and B is the man and which the woman). In the initial description of the game A the trickster is a man, B the adjuvant is a woman. The letter C is associated with the interrogator. Later in the essay Turing uses the letter C to name the computer-machine but it’s role is that of trickster, B the adjuvant is now to be played by a man: where has woman gone? — from a narratological perspective, if one were to preserve the game of ascribing to A and B the correct gender, the woman position is assimilated to that of the computer with a twist — the woman position is not that of the trickster. Ah, but such a reading (or over reading) is presuming a diegetic relations between the two descriptions of the participants in the imitation game. The two descriptions can also be read as unconnected discrete states of the essay-story machine.

    Often overlooked is the logic of the situation: the computer could pretend to be either a man or a woman to trick the interrogator when the other player is a man (or a woman). The game is set up for the interrogator to fail when a machine is involved. Whatever gender-sex the interrogator ascibes to the machine-player, the interrogator is wrong. The set up happens when the essay slides from the observation that “all digital computers are in a sense equivalent” to the equivalency of the questions. Are they really equivalent, the machines or the questions? Implied in Turing’s essay is the possibility that the computer, the thinking machine, can take the place of the interrogator. “This special property of digital computers, that they can mimic any discrete state machine, is described by saying that they are _universal_ machines. The existence of machines with this property hs the important consequence that, considerations of speed apart, it is unnecessory to design various new machines to do various computing
    processes.” Recall that before the advent of electronic digital computers, a computer was a person, a human person. Recall that Turing takes pains to devote some space to Babbage and the notion that computers need not be electrical. Recall with Babbage, first there was the Difference Engine, then the Analytical Engine. Turing doesn’t discuss the Difference Engine.

    Humans have the ability to mimic discrete state machines. Turing invites us to an eros of the mind through the body of mathematics: “In the nervous system chemical phenomena are at least as important as electrical. In certain computers the storage system is mainly acoustic. The feature of using electricity is thus seen to be only a very superficial similarity. If we wish to find such similarities we should rather look for mathematical analogies of function.” Electricity or not: Turing offers a variatn of the question “Can machines think?” into a belief that in about 50 years time it would be possible to program computers [human computers?] […] to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. The original question, ‘Can machines think? I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion.” Indeed, to read Turing is to ask _what is a machine?_ and _only 2 genders?__

  12. Elin

    Perhaps a bit off track, but the gender problem in the Norwegian language is interesting. My cat Sofia was left with my parents in Bergen when I moved away. From time to time, I check in with my mum about how she is doing, Katten (the cat) is male in “Bergensk” – but my mum, from up north, always speaks of Sofia as “katta” (female).
    “Katta is doing gooood,” she will tell me. Because Sofia indeed is a she, I always say “katta” to my mum, but “katten” to my son who grew up in Bergen. “Katten is doing good!” I’ll repeat to him.
    I feel weird about saying katten to my mother, as if I am comitting a serious language mistake.
    But I also feel weird inside when I say katta about this creature I think of as katten, and to avoid this, I think of “katta” a being a secondary name to Sofia when I speak with my mother.

    I wonder if growing up with the Bergen grammar makes us somewhat more oblivious of gender differences than others? I always thought of people from the east as much more feisty in this area than us “smapiker” from Bergen….

  13. Jill

    How are the easteners more feisty? We’re supposed to be nokke for seg!

    But you’re right, we probably don’t totally get gender and language…

    Thanks Mark, Nick, Fran?ßois, for the discussion of Turing 🙂

  14. torill

    I think “hot” in this case comes from McLuhan, and his distinction between hot and cold media. At least that fits with how the word is used here.

  15. Francois Lachance

    There is some textual evidence to support Jill’s characterization of Ted Nelson in Computer Lib the flipside of Dream Machines. Page 49 reproduction and annecdote about a nude [pinup girl] stored as a public file on a time-sharing system. Nelson writes with a certain amount of glee ” my office-mates scrambled to get printouts of her. The cleverest, though, had a _deck punched_. As he predicted, shw was thrown off by the systems people within an hour or so — leaving the other guys with their printouts, but hed had the deck. Now he can put her _back_ in the computer any time, but they can’t.”

    That’s from the 1974 edition. I’ve no idea if it’s in the 1987 edition (I donated my copy a while back and there is no copy at the nearby library)

    I am curious about the passage (simple, hot and deep) that triggered the entry and the commentary that followed. If Jill herself or some kind reader has a chance, could more context be provided… what leads up to the passage and what follows?

  16. mark bernstein

    I don’t believe Jill was characterizing Ted Nelson at all — she cites him as a source of a motto of an early computer game publisher.

    I observe that we’re dangerously close to deploring metaphor. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

  17. mark bernstein

    Found the original source — Trip Hawkins, founder of EA and later of 3DO

  18. Craig

    I first read the “Simple, Hot, Deep” passage back in the late 70s and I never thought of it as a sexual metaphor. And now that you bring it up, I still don’t. Sometimes a metaphor is just a metaphor.

    As to Turing and the Imitation Game; when I read descriptions of that game I always took for granted that the game was modified from “decide which is male and which female” from “decide which is human and which machine”. He was, after all, repurposing an existing parlor game of his time.

  19. Francois Lachance

    Mark is quite correct Jill was not characterizing the man, Ted Nelson, and my onomastic trope (metonymy using the name of the person authoring a text to stand for the text) is perhaps prone to being read a a deploring of figuration. That said, Jill is not citing the author as the source of a motto. She is showing the author’s citational practice and furthermore commenting on the metaphorics implied in one reading of the cited passage and in other textual instances: ” What a ridiculously explicit description of a very objectifying male
    view of sex with a woman. Men seem to love thinking of machines as
    somehow equivalent to or replacements for women.”

    I read that as context setting commentary. Characterization perhaps?

    I am still curious about the context of passage from Ted Nelson’s 1987 Dream Machines.

    And you can compare me to a summer’s day but I’m so much more than a planet rotation in season: a sideral (spelt a la Milton) year, perhaps?.

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