How sex, bombs and burgers shaped our world

From Skype to robotics, our basest instincts have given us our greatest innovations. An expert explains why

Published January 8, 2012 8:00PM (EST)

     (<a href=''>Olinchuck</a> and <a href=''>Anetlanda</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Wikipedia)
(Olinchuck and Anetlanda via Shutterstock/Wikipedia)

Our lives today are more defined by technology than ever before. Thanks to Skype and Google, we can video chat with our family from across the planet. We have robots to clean our floors and satellite TV that allows us to watch anything we want, whenever we want it. We can reheat food at the touch of a button. But without our basest instincts -- our most violent and libidinous tendencies -- none of this would be possible. Indeed, if Canadian tech journalist Peter Nowak is to be believed, the key drivers of 20th-century progress were bloodlust, gluttony and our desire to get laid.

In his new book, "Sex, Bombs and Burgers," Nowak argues that porn, fast food and the military have completely reshaped modern technology and our relationship to it. He points to inventions like powderized food, which emerged out of the Second World War effort and made restaurant chains like McDonald's and Dairy Queen possible. He shows how outsourced phone sex lines have helped bring wealth to poor countries, like Guyana. And he explains how pornography helped drive both the home entertainment industry and modern Web technology, like video chat. An entertaining and well-research read, filled with surprising facts, "Sex, Bombs and Burgers" offers a provocative alternate history of 20th-century progress.

Salon spoke with Nowak over the phone from Toronto about the importance of the Second World War, the military roots of the Barbie Doll and why the Roomba is our future.

How would you summarize the broader argument behind the book?

It's a look at some of the darker instincts that we as a race have: the need to fight, the need to engorge ourselves and the need to reproduce. Despite thousands of years of conscious evolution, we haven't been able to escape those things. It's the story of how our negative side has resulted in some of our most positive accomplishments.

So much of the technology you talk about came out of the Second World War. Why was that period so important for innovation?

It was when the military really started spending a lot of money on research. At one point during the war, the U.S. was devoting something like 85 percent of its entire income to military spending. So when you take that kind of effort and those resources and that brainpower and you devote them to one particular thing, the effects are going to be huge and long-lasting, which is why World War II was probably the most important technological event in human history. And the sequel, at least technologically speaking, to that period was the Space Race. I'm of the belief that cancer could be cured if somebody in the United States would dedicate the same kinds of resources in the same amount of time as it did to developing the atom bomb and putting someone on the moon.

What kinds of things came out of the war?

The food innovations that happened during the war paved the way for the rest of the 20th century. The U.S. military had to move large numbers of troops over to other parts of the world and then feed them, so a lot of techniques were created and perfected, from packaging to dehydrating and powderizing foods. Powdered coffee and powdered milk came of age during World War II. These advancements in food processing techniques created the foundation of the food plentifulness in the U.S. and created the opportunity for countries to become global food exporting powers.

Plastics are interesting because they -- 60 years later it's hard for us to think about this -- but they really revolutionized the way everything was done because materials were running short in every sense during the war. During the war, there was a lot of emphasis put on creating synthetic materials and chemicals. These plastics were used during the war for things like insulating cables or lining drums or coating bullets. Then, after the war, chemical-makers like Dow started to come up with new uses for these things, which translated into everything from Tupperware to Saran wrap to Teflon to Silly Putty to Barbie dolls.

I was surprised to find out that many of our favorite toys, like Silly Putty and Barbie, had their origins in the military.

Silly Putty was developed as a replacement for rubber because one of the biggest suppliers of rubber before the war was the Pacific Islands, which the Japanese army was busy conquering during the war. Most people believe it was invented by someone working for General Electric named James Wright. He came up with this substance that was rubberlike, but the Army eventually decided not to use it because, if you're familiar with Silly Putty, it's not the greatest substance for making tires. After the war, he ended up at this toy store in Connecticut, and they packaged it in plastic eggs and kids ended up loving it. It was capable of doing all sorts of things: You could stretch it and plop it down on a newspaper comic and it would take the ink of the comic. It seems like a silly toy now, no pun intended, but back then it was pretty cool.

And Barbie obviously was a product of Mattel, whose founder was very into space-age stuff. He liked all these new plastics and he liked miniaturizing [things], so he went looking for people who could create toys based on this new technology. He found this guy named Jack Ryan who was an engineer for Raytheon, the missile builder. He worked on missiles for them, but Mattel lured him over with promise of royalties on anything he invented. They found this doll in Germany or Switzerland based on a newspaper cartoon similar to Blondie, except the main character was apparently a bit of a gold digger so there was a lot of sexual innuendo in the cartoon. Jack Ryan basically redesigned the new doll, and used his miniaturization knowledge to create the joints. He created a new plastic molding process for it so it was softer. And it became the bestselling toy in history. He also helped create the Chatty Kathy doll, which was like a Cabbage Patch doll but they had miniature record players inside them that say pull the string and she said stuff like "I love you," and he also helped design Hot Wheels.

There's the widespread belief that porn is responsible for the Internet becoming so successful. How true is that?

It's true to some extent with most communication technologies. The military is the big creator of new technologies, but we also need early adopters. If you create new technology and nobody uses it or uses money to further develop it, it's not going to go anywhere. That's the role the porn industry has historically played, as far back as the film cameras that came out of WWII. Those cameras existed before the war, but nobody really used them. When the war happened, all these troops were trained as semi-professional filmmakers. Their job was to film stuff for training videos and newsreels and propaganda. They standardized all these 8 mm and 16 mm cameras so they were small and their parts were interchangeable and they were easy to use. After the war, you had thousands of troops go into civilian life and some decided to get into moviemaking. A few of them made Oscar nominated movies, like Stanley Kramer, while others such as Russ Meyer, who was a cinematographer for George Patton, basically kick-started the porn industry with his soft-core movies. Once this market was established, a lot of competition started to pour into this genre. You got things like film loop booths in peep show outlets, which evolved into VCRs and camcorders and from there to DVDs and of course the Internet.

Porn companies jump on new technologies for a number of reasons: One is to expand their distribution, the other is to get their products to people as easily as possible because they've historically been at odds with courts and regulators and that sort of thing, but I think the most interesting reason why porn companies jump on new technologies is that governments and regulators are often hesitant to rule on new technologies because they don't want to discourage people from investing. So what happens is that porn companies jump on them while they're enjoying their regulatory holidays.

I had never made the connection between Google video chat and Skype and Internet porn. As you point out, Internet porn pioneered this idea of video chatting.

A lot of people, no matter what you tell them, consider porn's contribution to technology a myth, and that's largely because it's a very private, secretive industry so it's hard to prove the numbers. I wrote a blog post today trying to assess the financial state of the industry, and it's impossible to do because of the secrecy, and not just with the porn producers. A lot of mainstream businesses are also in on it -- hotel chains, ISPs, search engines, phone providers. They're all getting a cut of people looking for and watching pornography, but none of these companies disclose that.

Why is technological progress so tied to the military? You write quite a lot about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA], a military program that created a lot of new technology. 

The best way to answer that is to paraphrase Vint Cerf, who is one of the fathers of the Internet. He told me that, for most of its existence, DARPA was an agency that was interested in long-term projects and they invested in a lot of far-out ideas. For example, I saw something today that says they're working on how to control time warp. These are the kinds of ideas DARPA is willing to fund because they know that sometimes there's a long-term payoff. The corporate world is increasingly the complete opposite because over the last decade companies have been becoming more and more interested in short-term results.

But DARPA has shrunk significantly from what it used to be, and Obama just cut the Pentagon's budget. Do you think the source of innovation has shifted away from the military towards the private sphere?

It's funny because people associate the military-industrial complex subconsciously with the Cold War. In fact, the industry and military have never been closer, and I think it's been a psychological shift in the way things work in the U.S. Since 9/11, it's almost become patriotic for companies to work hand-in-hand with the military. So many of Google's products, for example, come from the military or have been developed on military dollars, like Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Translate. Siri came out of a DARPA program called the Personalized Assistant That Learns. But in some ways, the military is looking to the consumer world a lot more than it used to. You read reports of the military buying a ton of of Android phones and developing a bunch of apps to use for them. There is a lot more borrowing from the consumer world; it's not as one-directional as it used to be.

That seems like a good thing, that our technology is less dependent on the death of other human beings.

You can actually see the same trend in business. It used to be that the corporate IT department would buy early technology and then it would filter onto the consumer world. Now it's the reverse. When the iPhone came out, a lot of people who worked for companies said, "I don't want this jinky monochrome BlackBerry, I want an iPhone."

You talk about robotics in the book as well. Toyota has tried for a long time to create marketable robots, particularly in the healthcare field, but as you argue in the book, it seems like military robots are the ones most likely to dominate the consumer robotics market.

These Japanese carmakers make really amazing robots, but a lot of it is about show as opposed to function, whereas military robots are the exact opposite. Toyota has really cool robots that can play violins and soccer, but these things cost millions of dollars, and do you really want a robot to play soccer with? I'd rather have a robot that cleans my toilet. That's where the American-style robots are coming from. One of the bestselling home robots is the Roomba from iRobot, and they're a company that cut its teeth building explosives disposal robots. The thing is, when you say robot, people think C-3PO or Commander Data from "Star Trek," but humanoid robots are such a small sliver of overall robotics. Robotic technology is bleeding into everything we see around us so that we don't even notice. There are cameras now that, if you point them at someone, won't take a picture until the person smiles. Our houses are also becoming robots -- some can adjust their power consumption based on if anybody's home or not.

As military budgets shrink and the center of global power shifts away from U.S., do you think the importance of military innovation will decrease?

I think the appeal of sex, bombs and burgers are universal. I think they're going to drive innovation regardless of where you are. It's happening. China is already the world's second biggest spender on its military, and it's going to start reaping the same benefits consumer-wise that the U.S. did. Pornography is technically banned in China and yet, according to the estimates I've seen, it's already the world's biggest consumer of it. India is the world's biggest growing market for fast food restaurants. Over a long enough timeline, such places are going to see the same benefits from these negative needs, but, then again, there may be an element of American exceptionalism that nobody else can match.

By Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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