Surprise, surprise…when I submitted this post on a UK man facing jail over photoshopped child porn images to BoingBoing, I was pretty certain it was going to make it. Sure ‘nough. Of course, that means there’s presently (as of this morning) a post sitting on one of the world’s most popular websites, referring to that story, with my name right next to it. And a link to here. Talk about freaky. I thought I’d post some thoughts.

First off…I DO NOT LIKE CHILD PORN!! I DO NOT LOOK AT IT…IT IS DISGUSTING AND DEEPLY DISTURBING! CLEAR ENOUGH!!? I thought I’d get that out of the way. *grin* Problem is, every time I type the aforementioned phrase in this post, I end up in it’s Google index regardless. Ick. Semantic Web, where are you?

So, to clarify my thinking, here. The important part of the story isn’t about specifics. Rather, it’s the nature of the offending material.

In one sense, it’s nothing new…obviously, there was written word pornography long before digital photomanipulation or virtual reality. But as the imagined/created material becomes more and more lifelike; more and more indistinguishable from reality, we become even more disturbed by it.

What’s the difference, for example, in watching an X-rated movie filmed with real people, and in watching one created with machinima in Second Life, or another virtual world? Sure, today we can tell the difference…but is that necessarily even the point? Does the fact that we can tell it’s not real matter? And what about tomorrow, when we can’t? What about an X-rated movie filmed with a real actor and a CGI partner? How about CGI partner, that’s um…not human? (Don’t panic, this could mean, for example, some sort of sci-fi alien. Or a zombie [double ick]. Or whatever.] The point is, when does this become pornography? When does this become illegal? Why does it become illegal (note: I’m not suggesting it’s doesn’t…or does, for that matter. I’m just asking the question here.)

It’s also interesting to note again the difference in perception between sex and violence. Remember the Hot Coffee mod in Grand Theft Auto? Simulated sex that raised a huge controversy…simulated sex, only unlockable via a hack, in a game that otherwise rewards the player for performing acts of random mayhem and murder. Bizarre.  Why is virtual murder ok, and virtual sex not?

Of course, the child sex issue raises additional issues…right? It unmistakeably would, in my opinion…if there were an actual child involved. Pictures taken, etc. But in the case of the UK man, there is no child. He photoshopped pictures of adults. No cropping in other photos; he just altered the adult ones. Weird, eh? How do you define what’s what? What about the super-realistic vector art recently profiled on BoingBoing? If he’d started with that, there would have NEVER been an actual person involved…but (unlike with drawings, for example), it’d be almost impossible to tell that.

We’ve merely reached the tip of the iceberg here. As I mentioned in the BoingBoing post, I actually bumped into the UK post in a Second Life blog, where the author was using it as an example in a larger piece relating primariy to “age play” in Second Life.

For those who don’t know, Second Life is a really cool online virtual world that’s open-ended. Unlike Everquest or WoW, there’s no game to win, or level grind, in Second Life. It’s “just” a world. And a player’s avatar is completely open…there are folks who look like giant bunny rabbits, and robots, and vampires…and 10-year old girls. (note: the Second Life main grid is intended for 18 and over only, so the actual person behind the keyboard is probably an adult). And yes, SL has a thriving sex industry…escorts and sex toys, dungeons and BSDM. When those things intersect…what happens?

And what about 5 years from now, in a virtual world that makes SL look like Ultima Online does today? Where we can barely (if at all) tell the difference between real-world video and game-generated content? Strange days are coming…

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