Sensuality and Data Compression

Two samples of related interest. First, Michael J. Arlen, "The Bodiless Tackle, The Second-Hand Thud", from McLuhan, Pro & Con:

At any rate, where once people went, almost instinctively, to sporting events (perhaps in the same sort of way that other peoples once went to the drama) because both the facts and the sensory appeal of these conflicts corresponded to their own view of the world, now, it seems, they go to them, or watch them on TV, in part because of "excitement" but mostly, as a guess, out of memory, as if looking at a Colts-Packers game on TV, with all its stylized confrontations, with its lack of smells and touch and heat and cold, with its lack of any sense of what a forty-two-yard pass feels like to throw or catch, with its lack of any sense, really (except for the disconnected clack of shoulder pads), of bodies touching one another — as if even this distilled, unsensual experience could somehow take one back, back to a time when life was more densely centered on human bodies and on nature, and when men acted out things that were important to them, rushing at each other across open fields and meadows, rowing on rivers, and skating on frozen lakes (p.92).

Second, Allucquère Rosanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age:

[T]he more I observed phone sex the more I realized I was observing very practical applications of data compression. Usually sex involves as many of the senses as possible. Taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing — and, for all I know, short-range psychic interactions — all work together to heighten the erotic sense. Consciously or unconsciously phone sex workers translate all the modalities of experience into audible form. I doing so they have reinvented the art of radio drama, complete down to its sound effects, including the fact that some sounds were best represented by other improbable sounds that they resembled only in certain iconic ways. On the radio, for example, the soundmen (they were always literally men) represented fire by crumpling cellophane, because to the audience it sounded more like fire than holding a microphone to a real fire did.

The sex workers did similar stuff. I made a mental model out of this: The sex workers took an extremely complex, highly detailed set of behaviours, translated them into a single sense modality, then futher boiled them down to a series of highly compressed tokens. Then they squirted those tokens down a voice-grade phone line. At the other end of the line the recipient of all this effort added boiling water, so to speak, and reconstituted the tokens into a fully detailed set of images and interactions in multiple sensory modes.

Further, what was being sent back and forth over the wires wasn't just information, it was bodies. The majority of people assume that erotics implies bodies; a body is part of the idea of erotic interaction and its concomitants, and the erotic sensibilities are mobilized and organized around the idea of a physical body which is the seat of the whole thing. The sex workers' descriptions were invariably and quite directly about physical bodies and what they were doing or what was being done to them (p.6).

These passages were written nearly three decades apart. In that time, we see two different perspectives on what is happening with electronic media. For Arlen, it is the absence of tactility, a nostalgia for bodily experience manifest through the primarily visual medium of television. For Stone, it is the compression of bodies and their delivery through the primarily aural medium of the telephone.

Anaesthesia? Telesthesia?

Or both?


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