Fitting in

This is my third post in this little mini-series on the subject of sex & sexuality in general, and this time I would like to focus on the place that sex has in our society. I mean, on the face of it, we as a culture appear to be genuinely embarrassed by its existence a lot of the time, rarely being referred to explicitly if at all (at least certainly not among ‘correct’ and polite company), and making any mention of it a cause of scandal and embarrassment. Indeed, an entire subset of language has seemed to develop over the last few years to try and enable us to talk about sexually-related things without ever actually making explicit references to it- it’s an entire area where you just don’t go in conversation. It’s almost as if polite society has the mental age of a 13 year old in this regard, and is genuinely embarrassed as to its existence.

Compare this to the societal structure of one of our closest relatives, the ‘pygmy great ape’ called the bonobo. Bonobos adopt a matriarchal (female-led) society, are entirely bisexual, and for them sex is a huge part of their social system. If a pair of bonobos are confronted with any new and unusual situation, be it merely the introduction of a cardboard box, their immediate response will be to briefly start having sex with one another almost to act as an icebreaker, before they go and investigate whatever it was that excited them. Compared to bonobos, humans appear to be acting like a bunch of nuns.

And this we must contrast against the fact that sex is something that we are not only designed for but that we actively seek and enjoy. Sigmund Freud is famous for claiming that most of human behaviour can be put down to the desire for sex, and as I have explained in previous place, it makes evolutionary sense for us to both enjoy sex and seek it wherever we can. It’s a fact of life, something very few of us would be comfortable to do without, and something our children are going to have to come to terms with eventually- yet it’s something that culture seems determined to brush under the carpet, and that children are continually kept away from for as long as is physically possible in a last-ditch attempt to protect whatever innocence they have left. So why is this?

Part of the reasoning behind this would be the connection between sex and nakedness, as well as the connection to privacy. Human beings do not, obviously, have thick fur to protect themselves or keep them warm (nobody knows exactly why we lost ours, but it’s probably to do with helping to regulate temperature, which we humans do very well), and as such clothes are a great advantage to us. They can shade us when its warm and allow for more efficient cooling, protect us from harsh dust, wind & weather, keep us warm when we venture into the world’s colder climates, help stem blood flow and lessen the effect of injuries, protect us against attack from predators or one another, help keep us a little cleaner and replace elaborate fur & feathers for all manner of ceremonial rituals. However, they also carry a great psychological value, placing a barrier between our bodies and the rest of the world, and thus giving us a sense of personal privacy about our own bodies. Of particular interest to our privacy are those areas most commonly covered, including (among other things), the genital areas, which must be exposed for sexual activity. This turns sex into a private, personal act in our collective psyche, something to be shared only between the partners involved, and making any exploration of it seem like an invasion of our personal privacy. In effect, then, it would seem the Bible got it the wrong way around- it was clothes that gave us the knowledge and shame of nakedness, and thus the ‘shame’ of sex.

Then we must consider the social importance of sex & its consequences in our society generally. For centuries the entire governmental structure of most of the world was based around who was whose son, who was married to who  and, in various roundabout ways, who either had, was having, or could in the future be having, sex with whom. Even nowadays the due process of law usually means inheritance by either next of kin, spouse or partner, and so the consequences of sex carry immense weight. Even in the modern world, with the invention of contraceptives and abortion and the increasing prevalence of ‘casual sex’, sex itself carries immense societal weight, often determining how you are judged by your peers, your ‘history’ among them and your general social standing. To quote a favourite song of a friend of mine: ‘The whole damn world is just as obsessed/ With who’s the best dressed and who’s having sex’. And so, sex becomes this huge social thing, its pursuit full of little rules and nuances, all about who with who (and even with the where & how among some social groups) and it is simply not allowed to become ‘just this thing everyone does’ like it is with the bonobos. Thus, everything associated with sex & sexuality becomes highly strung and almost political in nature, making it a semi-taboo to talk about for fear of offending someone.

Finally, we must consider the development of the ‘sexual subculture’ that seems to run completely counter to this taboo attitude. For most of human history we have comfortably accepted and even encouraged the existence of brothels and prostitution, and whilst this has become very much frowned upon in today’s culture the position has been filled by strip clubs, lap dancing bars and the sheer mountains of pornography that fill the half-hidden corners of newsagents, small ads and the internet. This is almost a reaction to the rather more prim aloofness adopted by polite society, an acknowledgement and embracing of our enjoyment of sex (albeit one that caters almost exclusively to heterosexual men and has a dubious record for both women’s and, in places, human rights). But because this is almost a direct response to the attitudes of polite culture, it has naturally attracted connotations of being seedy and not respectable. Hundreds of men may visit strip clubs every night, but that doesn’t make it an OK career move for a prominent judge to be photographed walking out of one. Thus, as this sex-obsessed underworld has come into being on the wrong side of the public eye, so sex itself has attracted the same negative connotations, the same sense of lacking in respectability, among the ‘proper’ echelons of society, and has gone even more into the realms of ‘Do Not Discuss’.

But, you might say, sex appears to be getting even more prevalent in the modern age. You’ve mentioned internet porn, but what about the sexualisation of the media, the creation and use of sex symbols, the targeting of sexual content at a steadily younger audience? Good question, and one I’ll give a shot at answering next time…

The Encyclopaedia Webbanica

Once again, today’s post will begin with a story- this time, one about a place that was envisaged over a hundred years ago. It was called the Mundaneum.

The Mundaneum today is a tiny museum in the city of Mons, Belgium, which opened in its current form in 1998. It is a far cry from the original, first conceptualised by Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri la Fontaine and fellow lawyer and pioneer Paul Otlet in 1895. The two men, Otlet in particular, had a vision- to create a place where every single piece of knowledge in the world was housed. Absolutely all of it.

Even in the 19th century, when the breadth of scientific knowledge was a million times smaller than it is today (a 19th century version of New Scientist would be publishable about once a year), this was a huge undertaking, this was a truly gigantic undertaking from a practical perspective. Not only did Otlet and la Fontaine attempt to collect a copy of just about every book ever written in search of information, but went further than any conventional library of the time by also looking through pamphlets, photographs, magazines, and posters in search of data. The entire thing was stored on small 3×5 index cards and kept in a carefully organised and detailed system of files, and this paper database eventually grew to contain over 12 million entries. People would send letters or telegraphs to the government-funded Mundaneum (the name referencing to the French monde, meaning world, rather than mundane as in boring), who in turn would have their staff search through their files in order to give a response to just about any question that could be asked.

However, the most interesting thing of all about Otlet’s operation, quite apart from the sheer conceptual genius of a man who was light-years ahead of his time, was his response to the problems posed when the enterprise got too big for its boots. After a while, the sheer volume of information and, more importantly, paper, meant that the filing system was getting too big to be practical for the real world. Otlet realised that this was not a problem that could ever be resolved by more space or manpower- the problem lay in the use of paper. And this was where Otlet pulled his masterstroke of foresight.

Otlet envisaged a version of the Mundaneum where the whole paper and telegraph business would be unnecessary- instead, he foresaw a “mechanical, collective brain”, through which people of the world could access all the information the world had to offer stored within it via a system of “electric microscopes”. Not only that, but he envisaged the potential for these ‘microscopes’ to connect to one another, and letting people “participate, applaud, give ovations, [or] sing in the chorus”. Basically, a pre-war Belgian lawyer predicted the internet (and, in the latter statement, social networking too).

Otlet has never been included in the pantheon of web pioneers- he died in 1944 after his beloved Mundaneum had been occupied and used to house a Nazi art collection, and his vision of the web as more of an information storage tool for nerdy types is hardly what we have today. But, to me, his vision of a web as a hub for sharing information and a man-made font of all knowledge is envisaged, at least in part, by one huge and desperately appealing corner of the web today: Wikipedia.

If you take a step back and look at Wikipedia as a whole, its enormous success and popularity can be quite hard to understand. Beginning from a practical perspective, it is a notoriously difficult site to work with- whilst accessing the information is very user-friendly, the editing process can be hideously confusing and difficult, especially for the not very computer-literate (seriously, try it). My own personal attempts at article-editing have almost always resulted in failure, bar some very small changes and additions to existing text (where I don’t have to deal with the formatting). This difficulty in formatting is a large contributor to another issue- Wikipedia articles are incredibly text-heavy, usually with only a few pictures and captions, which would be a major turn-off in a magazine or book. The very concept of an encyclopaedia edited and made by the masses, rather than a select team of experts, also (initially) seems incredibly foolhardy. Literally anyone can type in just about anything they want, leaving the site incredibly prone to either vandalism or accidental misdirection (see xkcd.com/978/ for Randall Munroe’s take on how it can get things wrong). The site has come under heavy criticism over the years for this fact, particularly on its pages about people (Dan Carter, the New Zealand fly-half, has apparently considered taking up stamp collecting, after hundreds of fans have sent him stamps based on a Wikipedia entry stating that he was a philatelist), and just letting normal people edit it also leaves bias prone to creep in, despite the best efforts of Wikipedia’s team of writers and editors (personally, I think that the site keeps its editing software deliberately difficult to use to minimise the amount of people who can use it easily and so try to minimise this problem).

But, all that aside… Wikipedia is truly wonderful- it epitomises all that is good about the web. It is a free to use service, run by a not-for-profit organisation that is devoid of advertising and is funded solely by the people of the web whom it serves. It is the font of all knowledge to an entire generation of students and schoolchildren, and is the number one place to go for anyone looking for an answer about anything- or who’s just interested in something and would like to learn more. It is built on the principles of everyone sharing and contributing- even flaws or areas lacking citation are denoted by casual users if they slip up past the editors the first time around. It’s success is built upon its size, both big and small- the sheer quantity of articles (there are now almost four million, most of which are a bit bigger than would have fitted on one of Otlet’s index cards), means that it can be relied upon for just about any query (and will be at the top of 80% of my Google searches), but its small server space, and staff size (less than 50,000, most of whom are volunteers- the Wikimedia foundation employs less than 150 people) keeps running costs low and allows it to keep on functioning despite its user-sourced funding model. Wikipedia is currently the 6th (ish) most visited website in the world, with 12 billion page views a month. And all this from an entirely not-for-profit organisation designed to let people know facts.

Nowadays, the Mundaneum is a small museum, a monument to a noble but ultimately flawed experiment. It original offices in Brussels were left empty, gathering dust after the war until a graduate student discovered it and eventually provoked enough interest to move the old collection to Mons, where it currently resides as a shadow of its former glory. But its spirit lives on in the collective brain that its founder envisaged. God bless you, Wikipedia- long may you continue.