Updated: Feb 26
Give a man a pen and he will probably draw a penis. Give him American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), and he will create a virtual penis on a screen using letters, numbers and punctuation marks. Which is exactly what happened in the creation of ASCII porn (sometimes typographically euphemized as "ASCII pr0n"), an art form that became the world's first internet pornography.
Before the art, a bit more about the tech. ASCII is a system for representing 128 English characters as numbers in order to digitally represent text. Starting life in the 1960s and becoming hugely popular in the 1980s with the arrival of services like Teletext that could transmit letters and images using radio waves, ASCII was fun graphic art. You can do a surprising amount with a few commas, brackets and underscores, especially if that's all you have to work with, there's limited bandwidth and your printer can't handle image files.
Even before the computer age, people used to make erotic pictures from letters and numbers on sit up and beg typewriters.They still do. And with ASCII you could make pictures using the keyboard on your Commodore Amiga, send them down a dial-up modem and print them out at work. It was nerdy stuff, produced by people who understood what the Internet was and how it worked before it became a tool for instant gratification and 3D immersive experiences. So with the predictability of a dog sniffing a tree, before too long, computer enthusiasts were using ASCII to make nudes, erotica and porn. The result is ASCII porn, aka ASCII pr0n.
It was shared through bulletin board systems (BBSes), Telenet, Sneakernet and Usenet, which transfer files on physical hard drives, CDs and floppy disks.
The apogee of the art form, at least certainly one of the more ambitious projects, is arguably Deep ASCII. Produced by Slovenian contemporary artist Vuk Ćosić in 1998, it's the ASCII conversion of Deep Throat, the 1972 porno. It would take an age do to download a film back in '98, but with ASCII things moved a lot faster. The method involved software capable of converting the pixels from still and moving images into ASCII. In 2010, a collection of Ćosić’s film clips went on display on the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) NetArt online gallery. So ASCII porn is art, with a place in the history of how things around us are represented. In Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, he asserts that, “What [George] Lucas hides, Ćosić reveals. His ASCII films ‘perform’ the new status of media as digital data… Thus, rather than erasing the image in favor of the code… or hiding the code from us… code and image coexist.”
ASCII porn's value runs beyond nostalgia. Illustrated Phonographic World's 1893 efforts to prove the value of typewriter art could be attributed to ASCII: "We believe that any endeavor which will cultivate painstaking and accuracy on the part of operators should be encouraged. The endeavor to excel in artistic typewriting unquestionable does this. The pen maketh the exact man; so will the typewriter, which is only the modern pen."
New ASCII porn exhibits appear on Twitter and forums. You can find some of the best collections here: ASCII Art Archive , XXX ASCII ART and Kludgeonsmith. And you can always make your own with any number of apps.