“Cyber Smut” is an anthology of fiction, non-fiction and poetry looking at social media and technology’s influences on relationship between people and machines. Sex is mentioned but the focus in on the desire to connect, loneliness, addictions and search for a soulmate, even a platonic one. The “smut” part of the title is more about the willingness of writers to look at the dark side of relationships and what pushes people and/or machines together when intimacy is desired but in short supply. Julian Bishop’s poem “Tracker” opens the collection, where an unnamed ‘you’ is watching a tracking app on a partner’s phone, leading to questions such as
“who were you talking to outside Boots?
why did you zig-zag and not go straight?
Oh spy who loves but doesn’t trust me
you programmed my phone into a drone
that circles me 24/7 – you may have reason:
peace of mind for the family circle
reassures the blurb on Ispyoo, as the loops
bubble-wrap your screen, a pattern of ties
that tighten around me like a noose.”
Knowing where your partner is at any and every point of the day might appear to provide reassurance, but it also destroys the intimacy as the person being traced has lost their freedom. Similar issues are explored in Kristian X’s “Metrics” looks at a relationship with one of the couple more preoccupied with her twitter following and the reactions of the twitter followers who have never met the couple in real life. How far do we care about someone we’ve never met but discard the person next to us?
Liam Hogan’s “Plastic People” explores whether cyber relationships are better than real life encounters as the narrator struggles with identifying whether the image in front of him is real or virtual. In Ross Baxter’s “Self Service” a till gets friendly with a student doing night shifts, offering connection through conversation and emojis. The student knows the till isn’t a person but ‘she’ listens to him and responds whereas his student friendships feel fleeting and temporary. This human need to be listened to is picked up in Rab Ferguson’s “The Call” where a helpline operator doesn’t know if she’s real or AI and hatches a plan to find out.
Tamara MacLeod’s non-fiction “Cyberwhores_Sex_Robots_and_Aliens” looks at attitudes towards sex workers, “He [a sex worker’s client] brings society into my bedroom and I resent it. His questions are so stigmatising… nothing you would ask a real woman.” Her conclusion is that generally clients don’t see the woman they are paying as completely human so robots aren’t the problem for sex workers, the problem is the clients, “John Doe fucks women like they are robots because he wants a human connection; he just doesn’t know how to get it.” Ellie Stewart’s “Send Nudes” picks up this theme as she ponders on how women lay themselves out on screen for passive consumption and do similar in real life, “eyes somewhere else/ screen glowing”. Yet her male partners fail to notice her disconnect, that she’s not fully present.
A broader exploration of presence and presentation is explored in Julianne Ingles “Dante’s Dream”. An artist is connected to a virtual gallery to be on hand to talk about her paintings as a client is shown around. He is seen as an avatar, but shows an interest in a painting that’s now ten years old. The artist dredges up some memory of reading poetry when she painted it and feels fake. It’s an old picture she’s moved on from. However, the buyer in the virtual gallery is still interested and she’s not sure how to react.
The ease at which the online world allows edited versions of ourselves is further explored in Asad Raja’s “Home / Screen” where a partial lie on a tweet still gains excessive likes and the person who exposes the lie only gains 36 likes. The person exposing the lie also questions the true part of the tweet, since if the truth is tainted by a lie, can it be trusted?
Aidan Martin’s “Groomed”, an opening chapter to a memoir about addiction, abuse and recovery, sees a fifteen-year-old schoolboy lie to his parents about meeting friends but goes to meet ‘Derek’, whom he’s been having an online conversation with, in real life. The experience is as traumatising as it suggests, a middle-aged man exploits a naïve schoolboy. Here echoes of Tamara MacLeod’s essay resonate as readers wonder what makes Derek able to view this boy as less than human, what motivates him to exploit rather than protect?
At its heart “Cyber Smut” is an exploration of the human need for connection and how it makes us vulnerable to exploitation and forging connections where there perhaps aren’t any. The pieces ask questions about sex and intimacy, what drives people to create AI connections where human ones aren’t available and asks whether that’s problematic or a viable substitute. “Cyber Smut” doesn’t offer answers or moralise, but it’s a thought-provoking journey through desire and communication.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.