‘Alfie Bown’s Dream Lovers, exploring the new digital architectures and its effects’, Nicholas Burman, δημοσίευση CLOT Magazine [1/9/2022]Marilena Pateraki
For as long as digital technologies have existed, they’ve been a means through which sex and desire have been filtered and fed back to us. In the increasingly networked, ‘smart’ society in which we live, the exact relationship between what we want, why we want it and how we satisfy our desires is more often than not mediated through algorithms, digital interfaces and artificial intelligence-driven hardware.
Alfie Bown’s Dream Lovers is an essential and critical account of this new digital architecture and its effects. Touching on the economics of Grindr, VR porn, the gamification of social interactions, and much more, it offers both a broad overview of the political forces behind this unfolding revolution and also provides those of us surrounded by digital prodding an opportunity to critically reflect on the tech that shapes the quotidian. Importantly, Bown also imagines how this technology could be used for progressive means.
Bown’s ongoing interest with video games and ‘gamification’ underpins this book. His divorce also had an impact. Discussing his subsequent experimentation with an AI girlfriend and a virtual reality relationship simulator during our screen-mediated chat, he clarifies that: “I wasn’t seriously going to try and replace my wife, Black Mirror-style, with a robot, but a lot of things had changed in the realm of love and digital media since I’d last been single, and I wanted to see how they work psychologically.”
Bown is not the first writer to take a look at these topics. Sex robots, in particular, have garnered much interest. Barak Lurie’s Rise Of The Sex Machines (2019) is one ludicrously reactionary discussion of the topic. Meanwhile, Kate Devlin has supplied a much more historically rooted and lucid account in her 2018 book Turned On. By placing this discourse within an anti-capitalist stance, Dream Lovers is a more radical project than many of its thematic predecessors.
I asked Bown about why he uses ‘gamification’ and why a term such as ‘commodification’ isn’t sufficient at the present juncture: In a sense, I am talking about commodification, which has a history as long as capitalism itself. But gamification is a way of thinking about the ways in which we’re programmed and reprogrammed to be capitalist subjects in this particular moment in history. Bown sees this ‘programming’ taking place primarily through rewards systems built into gamified systems that are designed to edit people’s patterns of habit.
Dream Lovers isn’t solely autoethnography. As discussed, it brings broader political struggles into the mix. And while discussing dating apps, for example, Bown draws on journalism by Evan Moffitt, who has written about how Grindr has transformed parts of gay cultural life. Bown says: Whole communities of people are meeting up via Grindr but staying on their phones the whole time because they’re accumulating kudos through the app. Grindr has digitally augmented the experience of dating and sex.
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