Sunday, March 04, 2012

A Billion Wicked Thoughts by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

There's a very particular stylized dance required of pop-culture books on sex: they have to claim huge things (to have discovered a whole new source for female orgasm, for example, or to have radically redefined homosexuality, or to have delved deeper into the secret sexual practices of Middle America than ever before); they have to be written in that facile, glossy-magazine style, so that no reader will be left behind; they have to have authors who claim to be intensely smart and deep experts who nevertheless are not perverts, so their expertise is almost entirely in fields not related to sex; and they have to tell us things that we basically already know or expect.

(That latter might not apply if you are the pure target audience for that facile style, of course -- but, like all general pop-culture surveys, the big-idea sex book is conservative at its core, and can only say things that anyone who knows anything about the field in question will find unremarkable.)

So A Billion Wicked Thoughts -- subtitled "What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire," which is true only insomuch as one considers the entire Internet a single experiment -- is titillating but also faintly renormalizing, as it tells us things that many of us know, and most of the rest of us could have worked out if we'd bothered to think about it. Our authors -- Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam -- are math modellers, which expertise they have used for vast data-trawling efforts. Most of that was on the Internet -- Billion Wicked Thoughts is forever telling us about the umpty million entries in this dating-service website, or the collated contents of a giant archive of fan fiction, or the revealed preferences from the viewing patterns of hundreds of thousands of online porn clips -- but Ogas and Gaddam found ways to use and explicate existing stores of data; this book is not the result of any actual experimental protocol that they actually set up before beginning the "experiment."

(As you know, Bob, an experiment begins with a hypothesis, and then proceeds through a methodology designed to test that hypothesis. When someone just looks at an array of data without an organizing hypothesis, and a set of expectations to test that hypothesis against, what one is engaged in is instead called bullshitting. Ogas and Gaddam do lots of bullshitting in this book -- much of it is plausible, and much of it is at least pleasant to entertain as a possibility, but all of their conclusions are high-grade bullshit, and can't be taken for any more than that.)

Ogas and Gaddam are also, unfortunately, prone to another major pop-culture book affectation: cutesy-pie pop-culture tags for their theories. So male sexuality is Elmer Fudd -- hair-trigger, always looking for something to shoot at -- and female sexuality is Miss Marple -- shrewd, investigating, and searching for the truth behind appearances. There's nothing wrong with this, in small doses, but Ogas and Gaddam use it as an organizing principle of their book, and it gets wearying by the fourth or fifth time they trot it out. (They are also fond of pop-culture tags invented by others, such as the "Magic Hoo-Hoo" of romance-novel criticism, and they often use these as if they were gospel, not commentary.)

But Ogas and Gaddam are data-heads, and that means that their purpose is always to look at the data, and make conclusions directly from those data. That focus on actual data redeems Billion Wicked Thoughts from just being a pop-culture sex book, as they poke through the text of tens of thousands of romance novels to find the female equivalent of male pornography, and dive deeply into gay porn to explicate how it's similar, and different, from porn for straight men. (Spoiler alert: they find a lot more similarities than differences.) Their lack of experimental protocol and of any kind of hypotheses are still pretty damaging here -- and you can see from the reviews by various experts that there are all kinds of issues they've ignored or not even recognized -- but they're at least trying to be honest and scientific, so I'll give them half-credit.

Billion Wicked Thoughts will probably be shocking and surprising to a lot of its readers -- those who haven't spent very much time on the Internet, or only stayed in the well-policed and -lighted tourist districts -- but it will be more obvious to those of us who already knew what Rule 34 means. (At times, I had the uneasy sense that not only did I know more about Internet porn than these authors, but that I knew more about romance novels than they did.) Ogas and Gaddam are well-meaning, smart, highly organized, and sex-positive -- so it's unfortunate to have to point out their manifest deficiencies in defining and controlling their "experiment."

1 comment:

James Davis Nicoll said...

Oh, the SurveyFail dudes.

Ogas and Gaddam are well-meaning, smart, highly organized, and sex-positive

It may interest you to know this may well not be the general concensus for many commentators, at least concerning Ogas and Gaddam's 2009 efforts. Here's one short discussion:

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