Every vice is really a blessing in disguise

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 January 2010


Thank God for the porn industry. The seemingly questionable industry does not care about morality, but is nevertheless a constant source of innovation and social improvement.

On Monday the Herald reported from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas where 3D porn was the hot issue for technology geeks this year. A porn actress, who had just starred in one of the industry’s first 3D films, was quoted as being ‘very excited’ to pioneer this new field. She should be. Once again, the porn industry turns out to be a force for good – unintentionally.

Schools will use new 3D television techniques to teach. Imagine how geography lessons will come alive if classes can virtually wander in faraway places using 3D glasses. Physics and chemistry experiments too dangerous or complicated for classrooms could also be shown on a 3D screen.

Should the parents of the future wish to thank the brains behind these teaching improvements, they would be surprised. Far from being the result of some philanthropic engagement, the new technologies will have been conceived not in an ivory tower but as a byproduct of the sex industry.

Porn producers couldn’t care less whether they were doing a service to society as long as they can line their pockets. Yet when you look at porn’s track record, it has always been at the forefront of technological change. The development of video tapes and DVDs probably owes as much to the demand for sex movies as it does to less raunchy sorts of entertainment.

The internet is another case in point. With some justification, sexual needs could be called the mother of the web’s invention. Without streaming videos of screaming porn stars, bandwidth would not have been added so fast to the global net. Online learning, iTunes and WebTV later benefited from an infrastructure which had been erected for something completely different.

But if porn is the mother, then another P is the father of the internet: the Pentagon. Had some military strategists not looked for a technology to make networking between their departments more efficient, the internet would have never started.

Good intentions pave the way to hell, but that’s only half the truth. Even more astonishing is that selfish, dubious and even plainly evil plans often pave the way to a better future.

To students of literary classicism this is nothing new. In Goethe’s Faust, the demon Mephistopheles describes himself as ‘part of that force which would do evil evermore, and yet creates the good’. Two German journalists, Dirk Maxeiner and Michael Miersch, rightly called this insight ‘The Mephisto Principle’ and wrote a book about it. It carried the nice line ‘Why it is better not to be good.’

Maxeiner and Miersch had a point, and that was before the invention of 3D porn. They noted, for example, there had never been a war between two nations if McDonald’s had branches in both. It was trade, they claimed, that made countries co-operate peacefully, not some humanitarian ideals. Or, as the great French economist Frederic Bastiat put it: ‘When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.’

The economic crisis has made it popular to denounce all business activity as driven by excessive greed. This misunderstands the role of greed. You may be as greedy as you like, but if you don’t produce good products and services you will never find customers to buy them. And if you treat your customers in an unfair way, you will soon enough lose them.

Entrepreneurs who are profit-driven – or greedy – have no other choice but to continually improve their services, and in doing so inadvertently they do good.

There is not a single vice that could not also be a blessing in disguise. Laziness is no exception. Harry Truman once quipped that ‘whenever you have an efficient government you have a dictatorship’.

That lazy government officials could be preferable was demonstrated nicely in Hong Kong. When it was still a British crown colony, its financial secretary, Sir John Cowperthwaite could not be bothered collecting extensive statistics; he just kept taxes low and regulation to a minimum. Whether this was genius or just plain laziness, it definitely helped to make Hong Kong one of the most prosperous places on the planet.

It’s a thought to get used to. Sometimes a porn producer can do more good than a dutiful politician.

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