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“If I realise my dream, I will have no regrets in life.”
These dubiously inspirational words come from Hong Kong inventor Ricky Ma, who hit the headlines earlier this year when his homemade humanoid robot—a spooky approximation of Scarlett Johansson—was revealed to the world. In order to make his particular dream a reality he spent $50,000 of his own money and two years of his life teaching himself basic programming, electromechanics, and 3D printing.
Ma’s labour of love resulted in a digital doppelganger capable of smiling coquettishly, responding verbally, and even winking when the inventor passed on pre-programmed compliments. I find this curious passion project both creepy and impressive, and I can’t help wonder: what exactly drove Ma on this dedicated quest—loneliness, perhaps? Was the dream simply to build a humanoid robot, or to create some version of a beautiful yet compliant woman, a fantasy made silicon flesh? Was the idea to manufacture an object of pleasure for the creator, or was the real pleasure in the actual process of creation?
And what are the ethics of all this? I can almost hear his lawyers saying, “whatever you do, don’t admit it’s ScarJo.”
Of course for many people technology offers, or at least promises to facilitate, more immediate potential for pleasure. Effectively de-stigmatising on-line hook ups, the highly-lucrative mobile love industry seems to have an app for everyone: from Grindr to Tinder to Thrinder (see Vice’s Karley Sciortino-hosted documentary for a good overview). These days cupid’s bow and arrow have been replaced by compatability algorithms, carefully-selected profile pics, and geolocated devices. Some mythical notion of ‘chemistry’ has been supplanted by photo filters and quantifiable stats.
And yet amidst all the frivolous superficiality of the hook-up culture that this tech has arguably spurned (leading some to feel we’ve experienced a ‘dating apocalypse’), there are real benefits. For those exploring their sexuality in rural or isolated areas where there aren’t gay bars these apps and websites have been liberating, enabling a type of connection and experimentation not previously possible without travel or relocation.
Technology promises not just to facilitate connections, but also make them more pleasureable. Take interactive website OMGYes.com, which offers visitors the chance to “explore techniques from the first-ever large scale research about the specifics of women’s pleasure [which combine] the wisdom of over 2000 women, ages 18-95.” For only $39 USD you can learn techniques such as orbiting, layering, staging, framing, signalling, accenting, hinting, and edging.
I’m guilty of focussing on a particular type of pleasure here, the type that belongs to our base desires which seek instant gratification. Sigmund Freud termed this the “pleasure principle,” but he also coined a corollary, the “reality principle.” A more mature concept in which we understand that gratification must at times be delayed for reasons of rationality, propriety, and well, reality.
This is a roundabout way of saying that there are other, less immediately obvious, ways that technology might give us pleasure or help put us on a more meaningful path to happiness. If pleasure is like a sugar-high, these would be the low-GI options.
I’m thinking here of free apps such as f. lux, which promises to make your life better by automatically adapting the colour of your digital screens to the time of day. There’s plenty of research highlighting that exposure to the blue light typically given off by our digital devices messes with our sleeping patterns, so this seemingly simple application could yield great benefits when you take into account how important proper sleep is. Oxford professor of neuroscience Russell Foster recently published research which suggested that getting five hours or less of sleep has the same effect on your brain as consuming large quantities of alcohol.
Or there are productivity tools like StayFocusd, a free Google Chrome extension which lets your disciplined, mature self trump you base-level pleasure-seeking urges by restricting the time you spend on time-wasting websites. Give yourself an hour a day on Facebook, block shopping sites during lecture times, block pretty much everything during exam time—it’s all possible using any number of productivity tools that defer instant gratification but may pay off big when it’s time to collect your results at the end of the term.