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The Fantastic Future of Porn

The Fantastic Future of Porn

February 20, 2009
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" are we seeing evidence of the so-called cusp catastrophe? "

There is an understandable hesitation on the part of industry participants to go on record in declaiming on such overly broad topics as "the future of the adult industry."

After all, apart from indulging in a few harmless platitudes attesting to the ongoing importance of new technologies or the potential risk of moralistic censorship crusades, there's little to be gained by putting in black and white honest projections of what lies ahead. For most existing industry players, change is more laced with threat than opportunity. Not surprisingly, folks confidently proclaiming the imminent arrival of Schumpeter's "gales of creative destruction" rarely find much welcome amongst those who are likely to be the destroyed instead of the creators.

Still, the question begs to be asked: Where is the adult industry today and where is it headed? Are we likely to see more of the same? Or, are we seeing evidence of the so-called cusp catastrophe — the inflection point at which not only the rate of change transforms, but the entire directionality of change itself shifts to a new course altogether?

If the former is the case, in general we'll see that historical patterns are holding stable in recent months and years. If the latter is the case, we'll expect to see early harbingers of the transformation dynamic: once-strong industry players stumbling badly and unexpectedly, stable elements of the existing industry ecosystem beginning to roil and fold in on themselves in unpredictable ways, new entrants reshuffling existing industry relationships faster and more deeply than most anyone predicted.

Today, new technologies are impacting the adult industry in ways that go far beyond historical examples. Existing industry players struggle for footing, while new entrants splash onto the scene — some to flame out in brilliant incandescence, others to quickly grow roots and begin fostering entirely new markets. In many segments of the industry, panic can be felt as an increasingly common tone underlying any future predictions.

As someone best labeled as an industry outsider or "fringe" participant (via privacy-protection services for adult content distributors), one may fairly ask how I could be expected to make any predictions about what the future holds for the adult industry. My response is simple: The transformative dynamic that is already unfolding in this industry, while specific in its details, is far from unique when one steps back and compares such patterns across many industries.

Historically, many economic researchers have noted the tendency of modern capitalistic markets to go through phases of sudden, dramatic change. Evolutionary biologists term this pattern "punctuated equilibrium" and, within economic research, the modern summation of it can be found in Clayton M. Christensen's highly influential volume, "The Innovator's Dilemma."

In it, Christensen summarizes extensive research, based on voluminous empirical data sets and spanning many modern market sectors, that shows a tendency for technological transformations to impact in a given industry in parallel fashion.

A new technological innovation, with the potential to have a substantive influence on a given market, is developed and becomes widely known. Generally, existing market players recognize these innovations as significant. In almost every case, however, they do not aggressively develop them, leaving that to new industry participants.

As these new players gain traction in the market, the incumbents resist them with any and all means available — from expensive marketing campaigns, to attempted political "kneecapping" of the new players. Eventually, incumbents acquiesce and either bring to market their own offerings based on the innovations, or acquire the new competitors outright — in both cases, with limited success.

In conclusion, Christensen points out that it is not a failure of insight or creativity that prevents incumbents from smelling change in the air; rather, they rationally conclude that embracing these innovations will cannibalize their existing, profitable lines of business. At which point does one make a decision to self-cannibalize, knowing full well that there is no guarantee the new innovations will match or exceed the profitability of the old models? There is no easy time to make that call. If, however, they delay too long they also doom themselves to an accelerating slide into obsolescence.

Applying Christensen's analysis to the adult industry, what is happening currently and what can we predict will happen next? I label the new innovation that is driving this wave of transformation as "friction-free distribution" — all the various ways in which it is now possible for anyone to distribute any form of content, globally, with zero marginal cost.

We may think of "file-sharing" as the real driver — or even a specific technology such as the BitTorrent protocol. The deeper structural technologies themselves, however, are all working together to make friction-free distribution a reality.

Yes, I know: In the adult industry today, it is politically correct to view these technologies as the "bad guys." Stealing content! Pirates! Not to deny any of these allegations, but to a degree making them is the equivalent of complaining that gravity keeps causing vases to fall and break. Yes, gravity works; complaints alone won't make it stop working.

As the emergence of friction-free distribution technologies continues to proceed and even accelerate, the adult industry has struggled to come to terms with it. Does one take a "sit the fence" position, essentially doing more of the same? Or, does one experiment with tube-site distribution of free content and other hybrid online strategies?

As an example of the former, I can think of no better example than the RIAA's failed effort to "sue their way to success" by filing lawsuits against tens of thousands of their customers. Whatever else can be said about that effort, the facts are clear: It didn't work, the industry is worse than it was before and file-sharing has only grown.

In the meantime, Apple — yes, a computer hardware and software company — has become the biggest player in the industry.

Alternatively, a brave few will try genuinely new ways of doing business. Of course, these avant-garde can't guarantee or even predict with confidence that new opportunities will be as profitable as the old. Therefore, anyone who extols the new models is a threat to the old — off with their heads! Whether, however, the new landscape promises as much, more, or less profitability than the old matters not at all. Just as the value of the vase that gravity causes to plummet from its pedestal will not cushion its fall, so the past profits of any given industry aren't a guarantee that future profits will present themselves like obedient cattle shuffling into the abattoir.

What, then, are Christensen's words of advice for incumbents facing the "innovator's dilemma?" Alas, they are few and not terribly heartening. Keep abreast of transformative innovations as they come into prominence, don't simply ignore them or go ostrich head-in-the-sand. They won't go away. Don't wait forever to acknowledge them. Instead, keep close tabs on those new companies that are actively experimenting with new ways to put innovations into profitable practice. Let them do the heavy lifting of trial and error, and monitor their results closely. I would add, as well, that complaints that industry change isn't "fair" or "needed" won't do anything to slow change.

The adult industry isn't going away. In fact, by any noneconomic measure it is absolutely clear that there is more porn available today — to more people, of a wider variety — than at any time in history. In my own teenage years, I can well remember the frantic search for any and all explicit content that pushed my buttons, and how truly difficult (bordering on impossible) it was to find.

Even my so-called "normal" friends tell similar stories from those days gone by. Nowadays, there's not a teenager alive in the more developed countries who doesn't know how to Google any and all porn they desire (and evade any nanny-style site blocking tools along the way). Revenue models may be in flux, but the product itself has never been more popular or more widely consumed.

Looking forward, what specific predictions can we make about where the adult market is headed? First, the center of gravity of the industry overall will flow out from the mainstream and into the fringe. Remove the friction of distribution, and markets seem to find "strange attractors" in the more esoteric fringes of the attribute landscape. What was once "extreme" or even unmentionable in the adult industry will be grudgingly accepted and then embraced as its profit potential comes into focus (and cultural attitudes adjust) — all the more so as profits drain from the commoditized mainstream during the friction-free distribution asymptote.

In fact, those of us who live outside that mainstream are already seeing the early evidence of this — 10 years ago, having an unusual family arrangement was solely fodder for hate and intolerance. Today, there's an equal balance between that hatred of the "other" — and a guarded acceptance that diversity, real diversity, is neither a threat nor a surprise. It just "is."

Second, and on a somewhat related note, the substance and form of delivery of explicit entertainment will complete a shift that has already begun. Historically, erotica existed as drawings — from paintings of well-endowed bison on cave walls through Victorian "picture books" of romanticized sexuality.

Then, with Lumière's moving pictures, the rush was on for "reality" in our adult entertainment. One can see the apogee of this trend on the obsession for all-things-reality in the adult market today. It's also trivially easy to see that this trend has already peaked — mainstream erotica is already becoming hyper-real.

Chemical erection enhancers, surgical body enhancements, digital post-filming "clean up" — what is displayed on that HD DVD image is no more "real" than most Hollywood blockbusters. We've only recently seen the first announcements for all-CGI adult film projects; they will hardly be the last. With existing CGI technologies more than able to render shockingly lifelike, true-physics, hyper-detailed scenes of digital "actors" doing digital things, the limits that now exist are purely in the imagination.

The future of porn, from a content perspective, is fantastic — literally. The reification of fantasy into reality, via CGI, is what "porn" will be in five years' time. While there will always be a market for real-world humans doing human reproductive things, it will be a niche — the white-hot epicenter of profitability will coalesce around the fantastical and sur-real (in the true definitional sense of "above reality").

At last year's Arse Elektronika conference in San Francisco, I watched as one presenter after another echoed this utterly unavoidable reality of where we're headed: The fantasy is now real, and when it comes to sexual entertainment we are no longer constrained by the laws (physical and legal) of the "real world." Smart adult industry players won't hang back from this careening future. The opportunities are almost as difficult to imagine as are the scenarios themselves.

Needless to say, creativity being what it is, there is every reason to expect that the limits of human biology will no longer constrain the subject matter of these new-fantasy erotic scenarios — indeed even mammalian biological limitations become meaningless. I have friends with lifetime dragon obsessions of a more "physical" sort — when they pull out their credit card to purchase 20 minutes of online time in a fully immersive, AI-driven, self-adapting sexual scenario renderworld they won't be choosing between male and female as the only two options for sexual partners. What was unthinkable becomes the object of most ardent desire.

Farfetched? Dystopic? No, on both counts. The adult industry is in transformation. Usually, when we try to predict what lies on the other side of a "cusp catastrophe" like this, we fail because our imagination just can't bring forward scenarios that are truly different from the past — we tend to think of more of the same, only … more.

The future of the adult industry is anything but more of the same. Yes, people will always be drawn to sex — and explicit content will always be a mainstay of human entertainment. That said, the reality of friction-free distribution is already catalyzing a fundamental morphing of the boundaries of human sexuality itself. With the limits to the possible cut loose by technology, it's simply deductive logic to see that the limits of sexual imagination will follow close behind.

Are you ready for the future? In truth, none of us really are. Still, everyone in the industry faces these choices, these risks and these opportunities — none of us has the power to push the "pause" button and delay them until the time is right. The future of porn may or may not be as fantastic (in both senses of the word) as I've predicted — but we can be sure it won't simply be more of the same.


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