This entry is part 10 of 39 in the series 40 years online

The Sony Mavica camera, released in 1981, was the beginning of the digital camera revolution. The Mavica itself wasn’t a true digital camera: it was a camera that captured video stills. But it was the first commercially released electronic camera, and it was a sign of things to come.

1981 was also the year that Xerox released the Star workstation, which used the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing device) system developed at Xerox PARC.  WIMP was an early GUI (graphical user interface) and the Star was the first commercially available computer that offered a graphical interface instead of just a command line. It, too, was a sign of things to come.

The Mavica and the Star were the seeds of a future Internet in which images and graphics would be as much a part of the user experience as the text that still made up 100% of the online experience in 1981. That shift towards a visual medium has been essential to the Internet’s growth. After all, it’s the GUI that has made computing widely usable (and even enjoyable). And both still and moving images make up much of what we find compelling online, and much of what we now engage with.

Images have also been essential to that staple of online life, porn. Porn makes up a third of today’s Internet. It’s hard to imagine that happening without the visual revolution that the Mavica and Star began. After all, here’s what online porn looked like in 1981:

I’ve cut out the juicy bits, but this clip represents the state of the art in online porn — thirty years ago. It’s taken from an ASCII animation of a clip from “Debbie Does Dallas”, circulated on a BBS in 1981. Back in the day, when all you could transmit over the Internet were the letters, numbers and characters of the ASCII character set, ASCII art was the only way to transmit images. Whatever you may think of a human being dedicating that level of attention to a porn movie, you’ve got to admire the effort that went into converting tits to bits.

And I can’t help but find it endearing that all these years later – in the era of live video chat — there are still people dedicating themselves to the art of ASCII porn. (Or as it’s often called, “pr0n”.) It’s hard to think of anything that is more symbolic of our emotional attachment to technology than the unwillingness to relinquish a deprecated medium for the distribution of porn.

Maybe our new technologies just can’t keep pace with our appetite for naked ladies. Maybe it’s the only kind of porn people can access at work. Or ¬†maybe people like to see naked ladies in whatever format prevailed during their adolescence.

But I can’t help seeing ASCII porn as a sign of nostalgia for the good old days. Not the good old offline days — how nostalgic can you be for a time when you couldn’t instantly find the names of all the Walton kids? — but the good old online days, when the Internet was fancy enough to be useful, but simple enough to have some kind of innocence.

We can still find that innocence online by choosing to use the tools and sites that take us to the content and people we care about. Instead of using the hottest new applications with all the bells and whistles, we can use what simply meets our needs. (I know: physician, heal thyself!) We can remember back to those first moments when the Internet seemed magical and miraculous, and we can use that feeling as a compass for finding our way back to an online experience that delivers awe and delight.

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