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pssst! want to buy a dirty cd? : The global cyber village is a boom town for many. Come along with four young men who struck gold with pornographic CD-ROMs. It's not a job you want to tell your mother about, but everybody has to start somewhere.

March 19, 1995|Robert A. Jones | Robert A. Jones is a Times staff writer. His last article for this magazine was about gay teens.

All is quiet. The workday has moved into the work night at New Machine Publishing, although Tony can hardly tell the difference. Indeed, who could? The offices at New Machine, packed into the industrial flats of Santa Monica, have no windows and offer no clues of the outside world. Midnight looks the same as noon. In the cavernous room where Tony works, a bank of computers occupies one wall, the screens glowing dimly. They illuminate small mounds of detritus scattered over the floor and tables: fast-food wrappers, the back seat of a car, free-ranging french fries. The walls themselves seem to be painted a shade of dirty brown, although it's hard to tell in the gloom. The place resembles a frat house after a big weekend, except darker.

And more quiet. The only sound rises sweetly from the computers humming away. Tony leans into his work. He is digitizing, which is to say converting video images into the digital language of CD-ROMs. A videotape is loaded into one side of a computer and the digitized images come out, like magic, on the other side. All day and all night, the digitizing grinds on at New Machine. At this particular moment, Tony and I occupy the room alone and I squint at his screen, trying to make out the scene being converted. Tony flinches slightly, embarrassed.

"Sorry you have to see this," he says, and then he lets me see. On the screen, an overweight man frolics on a bed with a lithe young woman. Frolic may be the wrong word. The overweight man is doing things to the young woman that cannot be described in this newspaper. He looks like Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle having his last fling in the St. Francis hotel. The action proceeds silently, as if the participants are mutes. On and on it goes. Output and Input. Tony, who watches this stuff 10 hours a day, finally turns away and starts rummaging around for a pretzel.

If the New Age of telecommunications is a great beast slouching toward us all, then surely this is its underbelly. New Machine, operated by a group of 25-year-olds, does not look anything like the smooth palaces of the Silicon Valley. This dark place, with its computers spewing smut, is hardly the environment where you would expect to find anyone making serious contributions to the electronic future.

But New Machine, and companies like it, may be doing just that. In the end, it could be places like this--and not Time/Warner or Microsoft--that first explore some of the more interesting niches of the New Age, particularly those areas advancing the ephemeral lure of interactivity. And, interestingly enough, they are making their contribution precisely because they deal in sex, not in spite of it.

No one has precise numbers on the size of the trade in New Age hard-core. But one tracking firm, PC Data of Reston, Va., estimates that the 100 or so porn producers control about 20% of the consumer CD-ROM market in the United States, a figure that would put their total sales at approximately $260 million for 1994. As always with porn, its presence is hardly acknowledged by the industry establishment. But at computer trade shows, crowds go wild around the booths run by New Machine and its fellow travelers. People stack up five and six deep, trying to get a peep at the action. If you go down to your local Virgin Megastore, you can see the discs for yourself, filling part of a wall. Most prominent will be "Virtual Valerie," the first CD-ROM that mixed interactivity and porn. "Valerie," produced by a Chicago-based company known as Reactor, would win the honor of first of its kind, except that Valerie happens to be an animated character. So she must share the glory with "Nightwatch Interactive," the first sex movie to combine interactivity with live actors.

As it turns out, "Nightwatch" was New Machine's debut. It made a bundle of money and elevated the four young producers in the company to the status of Bad Boys of the New Age. The process happened so fast that they hardly knew how to adapt. Larry Miller, one of the four, decided to tell his mom just to see what would happen. "I said, 'Hey, this is what I'm doing.' My mom, I guess, was kind of disappointed. She said she didn't think that pornography was my life's work. I said, 'Mom, I agree. Porn definitely is not my life's work.' "

In truth, all the partners believe they will depart the skin trade, at some point, and move on to bigger things. But in the meantime, they are repeating an old, little recognized cycle in the history of new technologies. For hundreds of years, the first to experiment with a new communication breakthrough have been those with smut on their minds. Whether it be the printing press or the photograph, pornographers have exploited the technology for their own purposes and, in doing so, expanded the medium.

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