Month: March 2013

Samsung's Smart Pause hates metaphysics

If a video of a tree falling in a forest plays when I’m not looking at it, does it make a sound? According to the Samsung Galaxy S4 the answer is “no” and it’s because the video ceases playing because there’s no business value in questions of metaphysics.

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“Using the front-facing camera, the S4 knows when you’re paying attention to it. It’s only implemented when playing back video, but it means if you look away while watching a movie, the phone will kindly pause playback. When your eyes return to the screen, the video resumes. It worked flawlessly when I tried it out.”Nate Lanxon,

Smart Pause is an expression of how what technology values and what it has been set up to monitor and record (our eyeballs) is influencing what it deems important to us in return. Video which plays while we glance away may or may not continue to exist visually, but it continues to generate sound. In developing Smart Pause, Samsung are specifically stating that attention not involving our eyeballs is simply not good enough.

The pause negates the question of what exists when we turn our backs on technology and it stems from there being no business value in the gaps between our interactions. Attention is now the dominant form or expression of currency. Without our attention businesses fail to exist, therefore it is attention which is to be measured.

At the moment attention is often quantified with a laughably crude basic arithmetic calculation combining unreliable data on number of unique users, number of page views  and the amount of time spent doing a thing. The second a more reliable [legal] way of tracking how and why we distribute our new currency the business pinata will burst, showering the inventor with treats.

Eyeball tracking is one answer in the discussion. It is also the reason the Galaxy S4 has firmly shut the door on the metaphysical problem posed by existence without perception, video without viewer. The technology has been programmed to obsessively monitor our visual perception in relation to the phone and to video. A side effect of this is that it assumes a similar set of values on the part of the user.


It’s a curious idea which has links to Berkeley’s concept that “to be is to be perceived” – a maxim which resonates with contemporary culture. If you send out a tweet and nobody responds, if you write a blog and nobody reads, if you update your status on Facebook and receive no likes did you really do any of those things?

Maybe you did. Or of course you did. So why the nagging insecurity. It’s because existence, identity and performance of identity are inextricably linked. The business of technology thrives on a combination of our desire for performance space and our ability to indulge multiple existential micro-crises and doubts.

We seek an audience for our actions and technology obliges. Previously this was by providing platforms through which to engage other human beings, but increasingly it is the phones, the televisions and the cameras which are watching us back and responding to our performance. In point of fact, Intel are currently building a television that will monitor the viewer in order to offer personalised (and therefore more financially valuable) content.

Taking the question of what happens to a video when you look away, the answer is no longer about whether the form exists or not but whether the value exists or not. A tree falling in an empty forest may or may not create a sound, but according to Samsung’s Smart Pause, it definitely does not generate a profit.

How the Pill made sex toys a business necessity…

It was a curious experience, sitting in the Wellcome Collection cafe with a sex toy historian while our discussion took in cock rings and treatments for hysteria and whether wearing a strap-on could be construed as becoming “superhuman” (it probably can).

We were there because when I worked on a women’s fashion and lifestyle website I decided it would be interesting to interview someone about the history of sex toys. It also ended up being the more acceptable of my two pitches tangentially relating to the popularity at the time of 50 Shades of Grey (the other being “Ill-chosen hosiery from hardcore porn films”).

You can read the original piece on MyDaily (it’s a sort of bullet pointy article called “Sometimes Mr Teddy Has To Watch“) and all the information comes from said interview with Lesley Hall, senior archivist at Wellcome’s library and expert in the history of gender and sexuality. (I should probably also point out that sharing it on Facebook without being careful about the image it pulled in got me kicked off the service for sharing pornographic content so maybe be a bit cautious if you choose to like it.)

The history of sex toys is a really tricky area of research because, even more than with other types of history, it’s hard to find honest and open personal accounts to work from, hard to look outside our own cultural norms and expectations, and hard to work out exactly how objects were used when all you’ve got to go on is carving in various degrees of subtlety.

The piece ended up simply proffering the ten most curious or noteworthy nuggets because of what was appropriate for the site at the time but I wanted to communicate some of the observations in a slightly different context. They’re not intended to form an article as such, more to pick up a few things that didn’t make the final edit or deserved highlighting.

One of the most interesting for me was probably talking about the recent past and hearing how sex toys actually ended up being a commercial necessity for some businesses:

“In the early seventies companies which had been previously selling rubber goods realised that no-one was buying them because of the Pill so they were moving into the marital aids market with vibrators and various other – cock rings, sprays, things to stop men coming too soon. It was a business necessity – a rebranding of what they’re about. They’re not just about stopping babies, they’re about fun sex… but only when you’re married.”

These were mainly companies found in the backs of magazines or catalogues. Rubber goods refers to condoms which obviously suffered a dip in popularity once the Pill’s efficacy was established. Presumably once sales of marital aids took off, there was a similar financial upswing in the packaging business. Specifically regarding purchases of discreet brown boxes.

Living in a technologically privileged society where a discreet brown box and discreet line on your bank statement are a few clicks away was also made apparent when hearing about how repellent the idea of handling objects relating to sexytime was (in public) only 100 years ago. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, Hall explained, there was actually  “a Home Office crackdown on continental purveyors of pornographers who were using Her Majesty’s mail to send their filth into Britain.”

The current state of affairs is not without its glitches, however. I speak as someone who has had to answer the door to a grinning postman carrying a giant (and not entirely closed) jiffy bag sack thing brimming over with a year’s supply of condoms — the direct result of a period of unemployment spent entering every single competition the internet had to offer. Unfortunately for me the anecdote does not end there.

The sack contained not only hundreds of condoms but also a bright red dinner plate-sized bas relief plaque proudly claiming in block capitals that I had had sex at Legoland, Windsor. I have not infact had sex at Legoland but the competition asked you to name some unusual place you’d had sex and I recall typing my answer rather sarcastically because what I’d actually had at Legoland was an argument. This is how I learned that sarcasm does not translate well to the plaque medium. Said plaque proved to be as indestructible as it was inaccurate and now lives in a crawlspace in my parents’ roof.

So yes, even though there was a definite lack of anonymity in the above, I am very grateful that there wasn’t the added social awkwardness of being labelled a consumer of filth and an abuser of Her Majesty’s postal service.

We also chatted about the surprisingly emotional letters men used to write to Marie Stopes about all manner of things, including how worried they were about their wives having painful periods. “In many ways Marie Stopes was an absolutely poisonous woman but she could be wonderfully sympathetic to these total strangers who wrote to her.”

It feels like the emotional side of sexual relationships gets stripped away in a lot of academic discourse so looking through the letters (as Hall did for her PhD thesis) must have been a very humanising experience. Lots of people just worrying about being normal.

Lastly, Hall cited three sexual history flashpoints over the course of the interview — inventions or events which radically altered our approach to modern sexuality. As you might expect, they all have to do with altering the consequences of sex rather than sex itself.

The earliest was the invention of cures for venereal disease – Salvesan for syphilis and antibiotics for other diseases following a little later. Suddenly sex wasn’t going to kill you.

The next was the Pill which obviously ties into women’s liberation and the idea of sex for pleasure and without the risk of pregnancy. There was also the boost to the sex toy industry as explained above.

The third and most recent is the HIV/AIDS epidemic which feels like some kind of inversion of the Salvesan flashpoint. Suddenly sex might very well kill you again. The fear wrought by the spread of the epidemic meant uncomfortable conversations about sex being forced into public spaces and necessary changes in how we talk about sex.

The interview was one of the most interesting I’ve ever done and if you ever have the chance to speak with Lesley, take it. If not Lesley has an entire website full of information and oddments. There’s also a whole page devoted to snippets regarding the clitoris. My own favourite is a quote from a clergyman’s diary that simply says:

“Sir John Brownlow’s lady abused other women with her clitoris etc…”