Ten indispensable technologies built by the pornography industry

Sorry to disappoint, but watching the pornography industry is not the same as watching pornography. And let’s be clear: It’s the action in the industry that matters to your organization – not that other kind of action.

Matter it does. Smart media and tech entrepreneurs keep track of what’s happening in the world of “adult content” because when it comes to technology, porn leads and mainstream follows.

Here are 10 technologies that secretly owe debts to the pornography business:

1.     E-commerce: In the 1990’s, pin-up star and self-proclaimed “geek with big breasts” Danni Ashe launched a commercial website, charging punters for softcore porn. In its first week, Danni’s Hard Drive garnered a million hits. For the next two years, it was the busiest site on the web. By 2001, Ashe employed forty-five people and turned $8-million in annual profit. She and other pornographers pioneered the e-commerce and security solutions that paved the way for PayPal, eBay, Amazon, and the commercialization of the Internet.

2.     Streaming video: In 1994, Dutch porn company Red Light District developed the first workable Internet-based video streaming system. They blazed the trail later followed by CNN.com (1995), YouTube (2005), Hulu (2008) and many others. Without streaming pornography, today’s webcasts – from presidential addresses to viral kitten videos – would still be the stuff of science fiction.

3.     Webcams: Long before they became boardroom staples, webcams and video chat were primarily used for live sex shows. “In 1995, I could find webcam communities with people who took their clothes off if I did,” one early adopter told me.  “But until about 2007, there wasn’t a single friend of mine I could have a non-sexual video conversation with,” That’s 12 years of porn-driven technological development before the mainstream took notice.

4.     Bandwidth: Bandwidth is not sexy. Yet, demand for sexual content drove the market for improved routers, switches, relays and other fundamental Internet infrastructure. Early users consistently sought faster, easier and more reliable connections through which to trade increasingly bandwidth-hogging pornographic text, photographs and video.

5.     Bulletin Board Systems: These local, online communities were dominated by people buying, selling, trading, stealing and creating pornography. In 1992, there were 45,000 such services in the United States, with more than 12 million users. Subscribers paid $100 million in subscription fees, installed nearly 5 million new phone lines, and generated more than $850 million for phone companies. It is shocking how much money people spent on new and improved technology so as to access sexual content.

6.     Subtitles and closed captioning for the hearing impaired: I kid you not. When the Internet opened up global markets, producers discovered two things: Pornography consumers were actually interested in dialogue, and they had greater-than-average interest in ensuring the captions didn’t block the visuals. Always interested in the cheapest solution, porn companies invested in new software that automated caption placement for minimum invasiveness. This same software that now makes it more efficient and profitable for mainstream companies to caption and subtitle their products.

7.     Microfiche: The system libraries still use to archive periodicals can be traced to “Stanhope microphotography” from the late 1800’s. For decades, this specialized medium was used primarily to hide saucy pictures in watch fobs and penknives.  It was only in the 1920’s that a New York banker named George McCarthy figured out that the same technology could be used for record keeping.

8.     Digital cameras: It doesn’t show up on the sales receipts, but analysts agree that porn photographers appreciated not having to take their film the Fotomat for processing. Privacy concerns drove them to become early adopters of digital photography.

9.     Cable television: This staple of modern media got an initial boost from an ugly source. In 1976, Manhattan Public Access Cable had about 80,000 subscribers. Then George Urban launched “The Ugly George Hour of Truth, Sex and Violence,” in which he prowled the streets of Manhattan hectoring women into ducking into an alley and taking their clothes off for the camera. Thirteen episodes later, subscriptions were over 100,000, and by the end of his second season, they were up to 300,000.

10. The VCR: Some people say the pornography industry settled “the format war,” choosing VHS over Beta and forcing the mainstream to follow. Those people are incorrect. Pornographers would have gladly put their product on a dozen different videotape formats had they existed. It’s no myth, though, that the VCR itself might never have gotten off the ground had pornographers not stepped in as early adopters. Most people were perfectly happy going out to a movie, and saw no need for an expensive new home viewing device. Pornography consumers, though, liked to watch alone. They were some of the first to buy VCR’s, keeping the technology viable long enough for it to become mainstream.

Patchen Barss is a journalist and author who has written about science, technology and culture for almost 20 years.  His new book, The Erotic Engine, examines the powerful influence of pornography on  advances in mass communication, from the first cave drawings to emerging technologies like haptics and immersive virtual worlds.  His articles have appeared in Reader’s Digest, Saturday Night, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Montreal Gazette, CBC online, and many other places. He has worked as a producer at the Discovery Channel and CBC Television.