Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

#HotForBots: Sex, the Non-Human and Digitally Mediated Spaces of Intimate Encounter

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

#HotForBots: Sex, the Non-Human and Digitally Mediated Spaces of Intimate Encounter

Article excerpt

Introduction

In 2015, a hacker collective calling itself 'The Insight Team' enacted an organized data breach of Ashley Madison, (1) a commercial website catering to users seeking discrete sexual encounters and extramarital affairs. Analysis of data going back to 2010 revealed a startling dearth of active female profiles on the site (2) (Newitz, 2015a, 2015b). Ashley Madison worked to conceal this stark gender disparity by fabricating the elaborate facade of a sexual playground teeming with an endless supply of available women seeking liaisons with its disproportionately male user base, an illusion perpetuated by synthetically populating the site with a standing reserve of more than 70,000 fembots (3) that animated either employee- or software-generated female profiles, or profiles abandoned by actual female users ('Angel profiles'; Newitz, 2015b, 2015c). This artifice effectively convinced male users to 'convert' into paying customers who purchased credits to interact with what was in actuality a synthetic fembot army.

The substance of messages sent by 'engager' bots to initiate contact was terse and crudely unsophisticated, designed with the primary purpose of extracting money from male users by provoking them to respond. (4) In addition to these automated messages, fembot profiles also demonstrated suspicious behaviour, such as signing in at the exact same time everyday and staying actively online throughout the day, including on holidays such as Christmas (Newitz, 2015b, 2015c). While some male users quickly caught onto the fact that they were interacting with fembots rather than with real women, (5) 80 percent of first-time purchases on the site consisted of credits bought by men to interact with these engager bots (Newitz, 2015b). On average, men who interacted with fembot profiles paid to either read messages from or send messages to 18-20 algorithmic partners (Newitz, 2015c). On the basis of this behaviour, it is reasonable to assume that some of these male users were unperturbed by the unsophistication of engager bots and were willing to accept the tenuous specter created by Ashley Madison to sustain the fantasy of heterosexual human encounter for at least a short while. Further, though users may have suspected that they were being misled by artificial female profiles initiating contact, they evidently found these non-human interactions compelling enough to pursue them, whether as potential sexual partners or for other reasons.

Beyond challenging normative assumptions about (in)fidelity in long-term heterosexual relationships, (6) the Ashley Madison data breach highlights the complexities and ambivalences of desire in the context of digitally mediated spaces of intimate encounter in which human-algorithmic relations converge to affect sexuality, sexual practices, and sexual intimacy. Richardson (2016) has recently foregrounded intimacy as a framework for engaging the digital in geography, focussing on emergent forms of digital labour. Building on Pain and Staeheli's (2014) theorization of intimacy as a set of spatial relations, or encounters, that '[stretch] from proximate to distant' (345), we invert Richardson's formulation to advance 'the digital' as a framework for understanding the reconfiguring spatialities of intimacy. (7) This is important given that we live in a present pervaded by digital materialities, aesthetics, logics, and discourses that underwrite and intensify the 'entanglement and indivisibility of proximate and distant spaces' (Pain and Staeheli, 2014: 346). We argue that these entanglements are inherent characteristics of digital mediations of sex, sexuality and intimacy, constituted by and generative of new spatial relations and sexual practices. The digital extends intimacy and sexual practices across a continuum of spatialities spanning from the immediately proximate to the non-proximate. These digitally mediated spatialities are inseparable from, and are actively assembled by, variegated intimate interactions and subjectivities that range from the human to the (more) non-human. …

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