Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet by Finn Brunton

Unsolicited emails can be a costly nuisance, says John Gilbey

May 16, 2013

For most of us, our relationship with spam began almost gently: those short, jokey email messages reaching out to us from distant lands, with an intriguing, almost whimsical character. But they quickly grew into more forceful entreaties to help, support, defend or publicise some victim of an injustice we didn’t understand in a place we’d never heard of, adverts for exotic pharmaceuticals with the alleged power to enhance pretty much any body part you could think of. Then bizarre offers began to arrive that promised huge rewards in exchange for granting the simplest of help to someone caught out on the wrong side of a conflict, coup d’etat, bereavement or legacy - interspersed with excited, conspiratorial messages about stocks in not-quite-familiar companies whose value was on the verge of going through the roof, honest.

As the technology of email migrated from stilted, mono-spaced text to richer, bolder formats, the messages became simultaneously more graphical and infinitely more graphic. Such was the nature and volume of the material, the tenacity of the originators, the evolution of spam-based malware as an escalating threat and the potential impact on the recipients that huge technical forces began to be pitted against those shadowy figures behind the great rafts of spam - which were now appearing in volumes that threatened to overwhelm the email systems of the world. Finn Brunton’s excellent cultural history of spam offers a readable, witty account of the battle between the spammers and the spammed - a battle of often surprising complexity and astonishing technological escalation, in an arms race that is still being fought.

As email technology migrated from stilted monospaced text to richer, bolder formats, the messages became graphical and infinitely more graphic

“Digital defence against the dark arts”, as it is known, has formed a significant part of my duties through most of this series of campaigns - and I have the scars to prove it. I once set out to calculate the full economic cost of unsolicited, unwanted email messages to the organisation I worked for. The unit costs associated with the corporate provision of effective information technology were painfully substantial at the time - and we considered ourselves to be early adopters at the edge of what was possible. Disk storage, wide-area network bandwidth and processing power all came with eye-watering price tags and were carefully garnered and managed - and we were not a little disgruntled to find that bad folk were usurping the resources that we had painstakingly established for our noble purposes.

Hence the calculation. Some elements were easy to measure: hardware costs based on the assumed scale of the problem, the percentage of our costly bandwidth being occupied by this unwanted traffic. Other aspects were more problematic, such as estimating the time taken to open, read and discard the dross - especially when scaled up across a whole organisation. Then there were the risks even less easy to evaluate: suppose that a message with a particular lack of moral integrity popped up on screen during a presentation to a major customer? The loss of reputation, and income, could be considerable.

Using software tools to block these unwanted messages was also not without risk. Applications to remove spam were starting to evolve, but remained in a constant state of development as the threats became more sophisticated. Most needed tweaking to reach a point where false positives - where a legitimate message might be junked - were at an acceptably low level. “Acceptably low” is an especially difficult term to pin down, as it may take only one crucial communication to be erroneously blocked for the whole system - and its managers - to lose the confidence of the customer. Just before I abandoned the attempt at a realistic costing, and in a burst of something approaching despair, I crossed out “An Evaluation” in the title of the report and replaced it with “A Speculation”.

Most computer users are still aware of - and possibly mildly affronted by - the day-to-day annoyance of spam messages, although as time has passed the tools to deal with them have become substantially more sophisticated and we have become more protected from them. Brunton explores in considerable detail the strangely involving history of spam development, and weaves into it varied threads of cultural and technical impacts that have surprising breadth and range. Perhaps because we have all been touched by spam at some level, the perspective given by the author is in part a commentary on our own development as internet users - although spam has its origins in the much more distant past.

Take, for example the all too common “419” scam - named for an article of the Nigerian criminal code - that is so beloved of spammers. You receive an email purporting to be from an African prince, oil magnate or government minister - or indeed his widow, son or mistress - who is inexplicably seeking your help in getting hold of a hoard of hidden funds. You are offered a massive bribe in exchange for your help in laundering or otherwise retrieving the money, but the sting is made in the demand for your bank details and an advance administrative fee. Once you have committed your own funds, of course, the hoard vanishes faster than free beer at a computing conference. When I first came across this scam, I assumed it was a newly devised scheme, but Brunton points out that it has its origins in postal frauds perpetrated as early as the 1890s. The capacity for human folly and greed appears to have few limits.

Equally intriguing are the artistic phenomena that have grown up around such schemes. Brunton cites examples of a thriving subculture of videos and music that celebrate the canny deeds of the spammers and their obvious amused contempt for their victims. Part of the richness of this book is the way in which Brunton draws together information from a comprehensive and eclectic set of sources - including some individuals who, perhaps understandably, “prefer to remain anonymous”. What the use of unnamed sources may be deemed to cost this book in terms of academic rigour, it more than makes up for in the colour and sense of place it gives to the subject. And, while some sources remain unidentified, the book does offer an extensive range of supporting references and a very useful bibliography.

I suspect that future researchers will find Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet a valuable tool in helping to understand the development of spam as an unwanted side effect of networked computing. It demonstrates well the ways in which a relatively small number of imaginative hucksters have forced the evolution of complex and expensive technical defences to protect the integrity of global communications. Add to this a very useful and effective analysis of the bizarre, perhaps unique, economics of spam and you have a book that neatly encapsulates the subject.

It is important to remember that this battle is far from over, and the tools of the spammer are continuing to grow in sophistication, making them increasingly challenging to deal with effectively. Brunton has done a good job: his prose is amusing and refreshingly approachable, and he has delivered a useful and interesting primer for those delving into the relationship between technology, information security and human frailty.

The author

Finn Brunton, presently assistant professor of information in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, was “born in Northern California, raised in what amounted to a string of alternative communities - and on the internet, of course”.

He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but will move to Manhattan this summer to join the department of media, culture and communication in New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. “In between,” he adds, “I’ll be living and working in a modified cargo van, wandering around the US.”

When he leaves Michigan, he says, he will “miss the close presence of nature: the hares on lawns on foggy spring mornings, the Huron river, the tamarack swamps, the herons and terns. It’s dark enough at night that Mars and Jupiter are constant companions. Once I saw a gyrfalcon out hunting in the depths of winter, eating its prey in a bare, black tree - as I think Hemingway wrote somewhere, the world’s brightest red is blood on the snow.”

Chief among his mentors is the man to whom Spam, Brunton’s first book, is dedicated. “Gunard Solberg was a very dear friend and inspiration to me - a physically adventurous and intellectually meticulous historian and anthropologist, mostly outside academia (his book on Wovoka/Jack Wilson, the Northern Paiute prophet of the Ghost Dance, has just been published posthumously by the Nevada Historical Society).”

Brunton followed a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at the University of California, Berkeley with a master’s at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland and a PhD at the University of Aberdeen.

“EGS remains the icon, for me, of a certain kind of scholarly practice, high-minded in every sense - up against the foot of the glacier, in that piercing sunlight, looking down, as Nietzsche said of mountain walks, onto ‘Man’ and ‘History’, getting them into perspective. The feeling that what mattered, more than anything, was understanding in depth and in detail, that ideas and engagement are of urgent importance: the alpine setting puts it somewhere between the International Sanatorium Berghof in The Magic Mountain (though without the malingering and laziness) and the slopes of René Daumal’s Mount Analogue (but without the fuzzy Surrealism). All that, plus a ping-pong table. EGS is where I learned to concentrate. And the University of Aberdeen, with quiet silvery rain falling on granite and the North Sea, is where I learned to work - that you must, above all else, produce - and the people I studied under and studied with there guide my steps to this day.”

Of the first email he sent and whether he remembers anything about it, he confesses, “Unfortunately not. I was quite young. I’d imagine it was largely about how weird it was to be sending an email, in the same way that people’s first tweets are mostly about Twitter, early blogging was all too often about what it means to have a blog, and the first episode of every podcast is concerned with the why of podcasts. The early email archives of mine that I still have are embarrassing - not just in the way that all one’s juvenilia is embarrassing, but because it’s so clear I hadn’t realised yet that email wasn’t rooted in letters (full of long paragraphs and pressed flowers) but in telegrams.”

Asked for his view of massive open online courses, Brunton says: “Universities, as we know them, have been around for almost a thousand years; computers have been around for about 60 years, give or take, and networked computing a bit over 40. Moocs are in their earliest infancy - you can tell, because they still have that stupid acronymic name, itself a knockoff of a dumb, awkward acronym - and I don’t expect they’ll stay in this form for long. What I find promising in them is that they’ll help us figure out what higher education is really good for, again, and what it can do that can’t be offloaded to wikis, screencasts, messageboards and badging systems.”

He adds: “Want a more daring prediction? The roots of universities in the West don’t lie in mandatory debt-for-credentials arrangements with huge administrative apparatus. They begin as mutual aid societies for people who want to study together and learn together, and get access to knowledge. The students owned the first university, in a series of councils, and hired and fired as needed. (The professors had a council, too.) Classes were taught out of homes and in the open air - no need for huge capital campaigns to build ‘signature’ buildings that look good on brochures! Of course, this is a document-driven educational model, without the need to support major scientific research, among the many other things provided by modern universities. I don’t mean to romanticise this moment too much, but to consider the model as something to think about.”

The ever-more-common expression TLDR, or “too long didn’t read”, may strike fear into the heart of many scholarly writers. Brunton says that “ultimately the whole Spam book is about attention, because spam is about attention (both human attention and certain kinds of computational work, which are related in interesting ways). Ever since the book was done I’ve been thinking about attention, focus, concentration, and distraction: how they’re practiced, how they’re described and quantified, and how they’re instantiated technically - how we build them into code and into platforms. (It’s kind of what my insanely ambitious next book-type project is going to be about.)

“I think we’re on the verge of a huge spectrum of new forms of attention - and therefore varieties of writing and reading. They will range from forms of total sensory overload that make someone texting while watching TV look like a Lindisfarne monk, to forms of consistent one-pointed focus that very few people achieve today. (Beside me on this desk I have a consumer-grade brainwave monitor with a Bluetooth output that tells me when my mind is wandering before I’m aware of it - an eerie experience that is starting to change how I write when I use it.) We will have access, if we play our cards right, to modes across this spectrum. Think of it (to take a concept from Matthew Kirschenbaum) like video resolution. We will be able to read, and write, in ways that go from pixelated animated GIFs the size of postage stamps, all the way up to 70mm CinemaScope projection. (If we play our cards wrong, we will end up the creatures of the hucksters and pageview vampires who plague much of the current popular web, with their listicles, banners, ‘churnalism’ and clickbait - who would love nothing more than a world of Google Glass wearers, their field of vision covered with location-aware, niche-targeted garbage, always on, forever.)”

Karen Shook

Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet

By Finn Brunton
MIT Press, 304pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780262018876
Published 24 May 2013

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