sex in the machine
Sex in the machine may work, even when sex outside the machine doesn't.
I've had enough discussions with people about Virtual Reality to
know that many of them are very uncomfortable with the notion
that we may shortly be able to create sensorial spaces
cyberspaceswhich will pass as real, and which will be
substitutable in all respects for life in the really-Real world.
It's the "in all respects" which gets people nervous
We can fool ourselves about some things, these people would say,
but there are some other very special events and occurrences
which have to take place in the real world onlynot in some
network of machinesif life as we know it on planet Earth is
to continue. We all know what they're talking about. They're
talking about sex. Not just mutual masturbatory sessions over a
phone line, as Windows icons are moused about with one hand on a
computer screenthat's happening alreadybut serious
procreational sexthe activity that creates babies and future
generations. This happens in bedrooms only, and not on the World
It's one thing, these people would say, to give John Abrams
(login handle "john138") who lives in California every reason to
think that he's having sex with Mary Felice (login handle
"mary23"), who lives in New Jersey, and moreover to give Mary
every reason to think that John's right, butgood sex or not
nothing will come of it. No babies. Orgasms maybe, but no
procreation. And that's the difference between real sex and
virtual sex. Sex in the machine is barren.
"I refute you thusly," goes my friend and critic, now sitting
back in the armchairsmug, satisfied and arms akimbo. "How do
you answer to that?" The "VR knockout punch" has been thrown.
My friend's correct about some things, of course. Sex in the
machine is not the same thing as sex in the parent environment.
My friend's also correct in maintaining that if procreational
sex falls off dramatically in the parent environment because
half of the world's population prefers to mess around in a
machine, then there will be some chilling consequences in store
for us all.
There will be fewer babies in the parent environment, for a
start. That will mean fewer farmers to grow the food we all
require, and fewer people to animate characters in the
machine-driven Lifegames. Also, fewer computer programmers to
make the Lifegames go.
It get's worse. There's good reason to think, together with any
current Darwinian philosopher, that the class of creatures
choosing mainly to animate personalities in machine-created
environments may, after a long period of time, find itself
retrospectively identified as a flash-in-the-pan splinter
species, properly extinguished in accordance with the law of
Natural Selection. They weren't spending enough time in a "real
world" mating bed, these cyberspatial travelers, and so their
natural progeny became less and less numerous, as did inevitably
the number of future cyberspatial travelers, with the result,
many, many generations later, that "Virtual Reality" shut itself
downwith the exception of flight simulator training for
pilots and so forthwith the once-fanatical players in
machine-driven, multi-user Lifegames remembered, if at all, as a
group of self-indulgent Philistines seemingly bent upon their
own destruction as a group.
Considerations such as there are almost certain to be cited
sooner or later in defense of quotas which would limit how many
persons are to be be allowed into reality chambers at any one time,
and how long they can stay there. Something like ration cards
will be issued by the authorities, as in war time, for the
stated purpose of moderating the behavior and thus ensuring the
survival of our most eclectic brothers and sistersthose of us
who, out of boredom or out of impassioned design, might choose one day
soon, and by and large thereafter, to animate Narcissus-like
reflections in other worlds, instead of their own personalities in
the here and now.
These authorities will give voice to the wishes of tomorrow's
"law and order" crowd, which will consist of the remaining religious
fundamentalists, political conservatives, and
philosophical vitalists, among others. Let it never come to
pass, they'll insist, that there may be one day a last man on Earth
an Omega-mannot hooked up to a machine, as is contemplated
only half-seriously elsewhere in this book.1
However, none of these practical considerations having to do
with the protection and propagation of the species Homo sapiens
in the "real" world has anything to do with the possibility of
procreational sex in cyberspace. There will be as much of it
there as our computer programmers allowperhaps even more of
it than ordinarily transpires outside of the machine. There will
be the act of sex itself, conception, swelling tummies, the
anguish and joy of childbirth, babies, diapers, and all the
rest. How remiss would it be on the part of our computer
programmers to leave this sort of thing out!
It will be no more difficult to provide inputs to a central
nervous system out of which presence in a maternity ward would
be inferredcomplete with newly born babes and their wan,
recently delivered mothersthan it would be to "create"
presence in any other sort of place. Fatherhood, motherhood and
infants are all programmable.
The babies will grow up in cyberspace, too. For the first year
or two, it will not be necessary to find animation for them
emanating from the parent environment. During this age of
innocence, they will be "little angels." The machine will make
them work. Only later will we face the choice of finding persons
in the parent environment to animate there characters in the
Lifegame, or to kill them off in the Lifegame (just like we
write parts out of soap opera scripts in cases where the actors
have become petulant, uncooperative, or simply tiresome), or
make full-grown angels out of them, assigning to the machine the
responsibility for their actions in cyberspace until further
One way or the other, these babies will maturethe joyous
fruit of sexual union between two other players. They will
undoubtedly choose to have sex themselves, to the extent
foreseen and enabled by the writers and programmers. They will
have babies of their own, creating family trees in cyberspace,
and inevitably requiring characters in the Lifegame who, for a
fee, will help trace such trees back to their synthetic roots.
Not without comment will these services be rendered. Given
family trees tall enough, and enough time, there will arise the
justifiable claim that members of these family trees have
evolved over the generationsand that they may be seen in
retrospect as having "adapted" themselves to the rigors and
challenges of cyberspace, leaving other, less-fit synthetic
personalities to fall by the wayside as computer algorithms
which simply happened not to get copied forward by the machine.
Since it is the machine that takes care of the "cut" between
winners and losers, injecting contingency into the mix in the
form of randomly-generated numbers, there would clearly be no
need for any sort of intervention from the outside the machine
as from a well-meaning Sysop hoping to give one group of players
a leg upin order that the selection process go forward. In
this sense, the notion of Natural Selection is perhaps more of a
"natural" in cyberspace than it is in the "real" world.2
I concede that none of this will be of any interest to those who
continue to have difficulty conceiving of sex and procreation in
the machine to begin with. To them, let me suggest anew that
they distinguish insufficiently between the cyberspace and the
parent environments, and are assuming that for something (e.g.,
sex, babies, etc.) to happen in the daughter environment, it
would have to be first possible, and also actually happen in the
parent environment, in order that it count anywhere else. Since intercourse at
a distance is impossible in the parent environment and thus
never occurs, so, reasoning through modus tollens, it must be
impossible in cyberspace, too.3
However, we are dealing with two different worlds whenever we
envision parent and daughter environments, and these worlds are
inhabited by different creatures. John Abramsa parent
environment personality playing at being a character in a
Lifegame using the moniker "john128"is not that Lifegame
character. John128 is. Abrams only animates john128. And so the
Lifegame character is not necessarily limited in its actions to
the actions performable by Abrams in the parent environment.
This is precisely the point and allure of life in the chamber.
You can do special things there; like, have functioning, growing
babies even though your personality in the parent environment is
Sex in the machine may work, even when sex outside the machine
What this means, in more general terms, is that there is no
necessary isomorphism between parent and splinter-cyberspatial
environmentsno required parallel structure between events
happening in the former, and events happening in the latter. The
two worlds will evolve forward in time independently, featuring
different life-choices, different forks-in-the-road, different
possible events and processes, and correspondingly different end
A holocaust may be inevitable in one, for example, but not in
the other. Likewise for any Second Coming(s) of saviors,
tranquil millennia, or angry Armageddons. They will occur, or
not occur, depending on the choices made by the players in the
respective and different environments, and depending on the
algorithms provided by the computer programmers. One place may
be a far more agreeable place to inhabit than another.4
None of this rules out the special cases envisioned by the
science fiction writers, in which a cowboy "surfing the
interface" between real and machine worlds may well want to "jack into the matrix" to settle a
score, do a deal, or make a threat, and then "jack back out" in
order to report results achieved and to plot further mischief
with his cohorts.5
To the extent that the machines are used in this manner, there
will be in fact a certain parallel structure preserved between
parent and cyberspatial events and occurrences. Events in one
may "have an effect" on events in the other in the sense that
we might have acted differently had it not been for our recent
adventures on the other side of the cyberwall.
However, to emphasize this particular use of virtual realities
featuring them only as convenient side-car structures into which one
retreats from time to time only in order to confront an annoying
counter-intelligence agent or to do some other variety of dirty
workis to trivialize what cyberspace is all about. It fails
to convey the far more exciting conclusion that daughter
environments are entirely capable of cutting themselves away
from their parents in one strokein function of the choices of
their player inhabitants and the computer algorithms provided
and spiraling off into the future in fulfillment of altogether
different and novel destinies featuring personalities, monsters,
values and new human emotions which may not exist at all in the
Those destinies will involve sex in the machine, and more, unless we are
all to be short-changed.
1Cf.,Last Man on Earth.
2Cf., Daniel Dennett's book,
Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which
champions the still-controversial notion of unaided, "natural"
selection outside the machine. Also, Stephen Jay Gould's
Wonderful Life, which would
urge any serious Lifegame
computer programmer to insinuate something like chance, or
happenstance, into any and all alternate worlds.
3Not just "my friend," but serious writers on the topic of Virtual
Reality have missed this point as well. One of them goes so far
as to contemplate something like FedEx deliveries of semen from
male to female in the parent environment, in order to
appropriately "echo" the event of sexual congress in cyberspace.
That we simply don't need. Mary will get pregnant enough in
cyberspace if the programmers want her to.
4"I would seriously advise against Ronald's World," cautions
the cyber-librarian, in solemn tones. "They've made a real mess
of things in there ever since they brought back the Bomb. They
really didn't have to do that, but they did. They woulda' got
shut down last November, `cept for the ACLU."
"How about Looser Grip, instead? Animated by many of the same
players, I'm told, but they made different choices at the turn
of the century. People come back raving about it in there. Maybe
it's the eye-zoom they've got. It's also a bit cheaper if you
take the five-year package."
"Or, maybe you just want to stick it out here?"
5This is the world of William Gibson's Neuromancer.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.