On-the-go porn

Cellphone pornography is set to be the next wave of adult techno-entertainment. Too bad its creators haven't learned from history.

Published June 4, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Before live nude streaming video, before the daily deluge of "click here for hot chix" spam, before the so-called adult Web was ever a glimmer in a would-be pornographer's eye, there was "ASCII pr0n." Spelled "pr0n" instead of "porn" in a typically obscure hacker joke, it consists of erotic art composed of the most basic elements: the ASCII character set -- not much more than the alphabet, numbers and assorted punctuation marks.

Newbies to the ASCII pr0n scene might be surprised to see what can be done with little more than a deftly placed comma and a whole bunch of ampersands. ASCII pr0n is a tribute to the time when bandwidth was limited on the Net, but creativity was high.

Created in the late '70s and '80s, ASCII pr0n was the world's first Internet pornography. It was the kind of sexual expression only a hardcore computer dork could love: ASCII pr0n jokes and pinups provided a common culture for a community of outcasts and misfits whose sex lives were portrayed by the mass media as weird or nonexistent. These ridiculously low-quality nudie picture-cum-text files were popular back in the days when putting photographs online was but a dream. ASCII pr0n was of generally poor quality -- so much so that its lameness was an in-group joke among hackers at the time -- but it also recalls a beautiful, innocent era in many coders' lives. Its low-res allure and retro cheese factor provide a cool, inspirational aesthetic for today's younger hackers.

As an almost forgotten footnote of Net history, ASCII pr0n doesn't seem to have much relevance to an age begging for 3-D "fully immersive" stimulation. But in a weird display of how what goes around comes around applies even to the vagaries of online evolution, ASCII pr0n is suddenly important again. Or at least it should be, if the latest wave of pornography entrepreneurs is willing to pay attention to its own history.

Get ready for "mobile" porn. Big-league adult content companies are getting into the "m" business. They're ready to sell pornographic movies, magazines and real-time interactivity on people's PDAs, cellphones and wireless devices.

But there's just one problem. The porn sucks.

"The quality is nonexistent right now," confesses Dave James, co-founder of Vivid Entertainment, one of the major players in the digital adult content market.

In fact, mobile porn sucks so hard that its ubiquity is fueling nostalgia for ASCII pr0n. Porn for today's cellphones is usually written in WAP (wireless application protocol) format, and generally looks far worse than most ASCII pr0n. And the hazy pictures or text tales available for your porno-enhanced hand-held devices are mind-bogglingly lame. One of the truisms of the modern age is that pornography is often first to exploit new advances in technology. But maybe there should be an amendment: Bad pornography always comes first, out on the cutting edge.

Twenty-year-old Irish hacker Cliff Flood is a self-acknowledged fan of ASCII pr0n, and boasts a small collection of ASCII pinups on his Web site, which is otherwise devoted to electronic music and life as a computer science major at the Institute of Technology in Carlow, Ireland.

Over e-mail, Cliff told me that his interest in ASCII pr0n isn't really prurient. "Mostly the ASCII material is just interesting because it is a curious novelty," he wrote. "It's quite uncommon, and seeing the images that some of the authors can come up with using just a few characters is intriguing. My friends and I are mostly brought together by our love for electronic music, creation and consumption, which sometimes involves ancient equipment and a love for all things retro like Atari [computers] and so on. I guess this is where the interest in ASCII pr0n comes in." This is pr0n as pop art, not, um, as personal aid.

The average cellphone WAP porn, most of which appears to originate mysteriously from the United Kingdom, looks like a haze of dots accompanied by terse textual suggestions, such as "Oh please, fuck my ass!" Porn for PDAs isn't much better. Tony O'Neill, president of one of the few adult content sites exclusively for PDAs, PalmStories.com, provides his 400 subscription members with a few hot-synced pictures and text stories every day on an AvantGo adult channel. Even he admits that "nobody knows where it's going yet."

But in 1997, a celebrity hacker named Kingpin saw the future of PDA porn. In a crypto-masturbatory moment, Kingpin invented a silly software application called HairyPalm, a hack of the Palm operating system that allowed users to play Apple IIE "porno demos" on their Palm Pilots. The app was basically a tool for viewing ASCII pr0n, but when hundreds of present-day ASCII enthusiasts began implementing HairyPalm, the thing worked so badly that it was rumored to be a Palm OS virus.

Despite HairyPalm's abysmal reputation, Kingpin did manage to make his point. Porn for hand-helds is about as sophisticated and arousing as the old ASCII pr0n that pre-Web nerds used to play with back in the day. In his readme file for HairyPalm 1.5, Kingpin described it as "taking a step back to the early age of computer pornography ... HairyPalm demonstrates the beautiful quality of that era."

Alexei Shulgin, a Moscow artist and webmaster for the notorious FuckU-FuckMe Web site, designed his ASCII pr0n site with an explicitly artistic goal. "I made the site in 1997-98 after I registered Easylife.org and gathered information about access statistics for artists' Web sites," he explained to me via e-mail. "It was really painful -- not very many people were interested [in art]. Unlike that, porn seemed to be really popular. So my decision was to make a porn interface to art -- a Web site that looks like a normal porn site but if you go deeper in it and follow links you'll end up at art projects."

The question is, are today's graphically challenged, bitmappy and text-heavy bits of mobile porn just as imaginative as yesterday's pr0n? Will there be cult Web sites devoted to WAP porn in 20 years?

Probably not. Many people look back fondly on ASCII pr0n -- which was available only to the small group of techno-literates in the 1970s and '80s -- because it was symbolic of a very specific epoch in hacker culture. The ASCII pr0n era was a time before spam, before dot-coms, before things like AOL chat blotted out the close-knit digital communities of Usenet. ASCII pr0n was by geeks, for geeks, disseminated for free in the (sort of) secret directories of BBSs and campus mainframes. ASCII pr0n isn't just a format -- it's a piece of hacker lore. No wonder it's being treated like cult art.

Mobile porn, despite its surface resemblance to ASCII pr0n, is clearly being manufactured by large corporations for the masses. Even if said masses haven't really arrived yet, the point, as Penthouse.com director Gerard Van der Leun says, is to start attracting them now. Penthouse.com has just started releasing what it calls "Petfolios," or minimagazines for PDAs that feature a Penthouse pet in a mixture of Windows-compatible text, video clips and pictures. "We're doing a couple of these for free, just to put them out on the Net in the real world," Van der Leun says, noting that Penthouse.com visitors can download them from the site.

Vivid is also working the hand-held angle, expecting to launch streaming video content for iPAQ hand-helds by Comdex time. "At the end of 2001, there will be a billion hand-helds out there," says Vivid's James. "We only need a small portion of that as a value add in order to make a profit."

The biggest questions for corporations like Penthouse.com and Vivid aren't how to work creatively in the WAP and PDA formats available, nor are they about creating porn for techno-geeks. Instead, Van der Leun and his counterparts at Vivid worry about how they'll prevent your average Joe or Jane from violating copyright laws. Van der Leun says Penthouse.com's Petfolios are protected from pirating because "in order to share these files, consumers have to disclose the credit card number they used to purchase it." He believes this disincentive to sharing porn will cut down on piracy. Gary Thompson, Vivid's V.P. of business development, says his biggest concern in the company's growing PDA market is "digital rights management." He adds, "We'll use something along the lines of a digital encryption code where the files disappear after 24 hours. Part of the reason why we're delaying release on this stuff is because we want technology in place that will keep people from copying our stuff Napster style."

Mobile porn will, in the end, be just like today's Web porn. It will be made by professionals for corporations, which will sell it to the masses. It will have none of ASCII pr0n's artistic or cultish appeal. Despite all the hype, cellphone porn and PDA porn are nothing new, nor will they be remembered in the glowing terms that ASCII -- or, for that matter, Napster -- will be.

Perhaps the ASCII pr0n nostalgia trend is a reaction against the always-expanding digital porn empire. Or maybe it's a way of making fun of how bad today's allegedly high-tech porn really is. Either way, it's clear that ASCII pr0n will continue to have a place in hacker history. And mobile porn will be just another notch in some CEO's titanium PDA case.

By Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a writer. Get the gory details at Techsploitation.

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