Network: An age-old trade at the cutting edge

History shows us that pornographers have unerringly picked the winning media
MY FRIEND Roger and I are headed south on Route 101 from Silicon Valley, passing fields full of migrant workers labouring frantically against a fast approaching storm. The difference between the "haves" and "have nots" is palpable as we glide past in our $50,000 Jeep.

We're headed to San Luis Obispo to lecture a university computer graphics class about the technological future. Roger, definitely a hi-tech "have", tries to even the score by teaching. It's a seven-hour drive twice a month. Roger's been doing it for three years, without pay, at a state school where students tend to be of modest means.

His big concern this year is his lesson plan. He prepared it in August, and now, in November, he complains that the lecture has lost its relevance in the three months since he wrote it. It's the first time in the three years that he's had this problem.

Hi-tech is high-speed. Roger's problem is that he's a hi-tech heavyweight, at the leading edge of computer graphics. He knows about as much about the field as anyone in the world, and he's having a hard time figuring out what to tell a bunch of kids.

For my part, I'm mentally trying to make my way through the e-commerce tangle. I've been looking at pornography lately - that's the topic, not the material. Porn has been a kind of validator of every new medium. The cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker says that porn is an offshoot of what proved to be a successful reproductive tactic by males who had evolved to be hunter-gatherers. By engaging in sex as frequently as possible, with as many partners as possible, they ensured that at least some children would beat the odds and survive.

Stephen Hawking notes that our internal genome changes by only a few bits per millennium, while our external environment is changing at an ever accelerating pace. Pornography, says Pinker, happens when slow, robust, Darwinian processes collide with fast, external ones.

Historically, pornographers have unerringly picked winning media: they picked VHS when videotape appeared, even though Beta's high quality and short run-time better suited skin epics. Ribald tales were among the first fruits of Gutenberg's press, and the pin-up picture was an early product of the process of photography. So perhaps it's significant that porn has flourished on the Internet. And in an era where sexual contact with others can be fatal, perhaps there's something to be said for auto-eroticism: it's safe sex.

Scholars at Carnegie Mellon University did a 1995 study about online porn. They arrived at an understanding of the dynamics driving the online porn industry. They discovered that the Internet strategy of giving things away free works very well. The leading online pornography business emerged in 1995 after tripling its business by posting free samples in Usenet newsgroups.

The study concluded that the market leader had succeeded not by technological mastery, but by old-fashioned shrewdness. The concern in question figured out what types of pornography were in shortest supply, obtained the goods and then spread the word, widely and inexpensively, on the Net. Their achievement landed management in prison, but that's a separate issue from the business case.

Interestingly, success was based both on an ancient principle - supply and demand - and an ancient urge. While it's probably best for Roger not to lecture his class about the pornography trade, there may be a valuable lesson here.