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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.

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By Annalee Newitz

June 4, 2001 | 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.

  Union of Concerned Scientists  

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"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.

. Next page | Will porn on hand-held devices ever measure up?
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