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Annals of Internet Porn: 1995

[First published in The New York Times Magazine, June 11, 1995, under the headline “This Is Sex?”A version of this essay appears in What Just Happened.] AT FIRST GLANCE, THERE’S a lot of sex on the Internet. Or, not at first glance—nobody can find anything on the Internet at first glance. But if you have time on your hands, if you’re comfortable with computing, and if you have an unflagging curiosity about sex—in other words, if you’re a teen-ager—you may think you’ve suddenly landed in pornography heaven. Nude pictures! Foul language! Weird bathroom humor! No wonder the Christian Coalition thinks the Internet is turning into a red-light district. There’s even a “Red Light District” World Wide Web page. The battle cry of the online voyeur is “Host Contacted—Waiting for Reply” So we explore. Some sites make you promise to be a grown-up. (O.K.: you promise.) You try “Girls,” a link leading to a computer at the University of Bordeaux, France. The message flashes back: Document Contains No Data. “Girls” at Funet, Finland, seems to offer …

Statutes Definition of Time Act

Her Majesty Defines Time

Removing doubts about the meaning of time is an ambitious goal, but not too ambitious for the Queen and Parliament of Britain in 1880. They enacted the “Statutes (Definition of Time) Act” to settle the matter once and for all. So now we know. Or do we?


Bot or Not?

Increasing numbers of Twitterers don’t even pretend to be human. Or worse, do pretend, when they are actually bots—tiny, skeletal, incapable robots, usually little more than a few crude lines of computer code. The scary thing is how easily we can be fooled.


For Sale: Magna Carta. Slightly Used.

What is MagnaCarta worth? Exactly $21,321,000. We know because that’s what it fetched in a fair public auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Twenty-one million is, by far, the most ever paid for a page of text, and therein lies a paradox: Information is now cheaper than ever and also more expensive. Mostly, of course, information is practically free, easier to store and faster to spread than our parents imagined possible. In one way, Magna Carta is already yours for the asking: you can read it any time, at the touch of a button. It has been preserved, photographically and digitally, in countless copies with no evident physical reality, which will nonetheless last as long as our civilization. In another way, Magna Carta is a 15-by-17-inch piece of parchment, fragile and scarce and practically unreadable. Why should that version be so valuable? Magna Carta itself is a nice reminder of how costly it once was to store and spread information. Its very purpose was to get the king’s word down in tangible form, safeguard it, …