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Admittedly, it’s not one of the more urgent or troubling questions raised by Edward Snowden’s revelation that the National Security Agency has been collecting online communication on a massive scale. But I ask it anyway, in complete seriousness: How does PRISM deal with all the spam?

By a conservative estimate, spam makes up at least two-thirds of e-mail traffic; the figure can run as high as 90 percent. Only a little of it breaches the filters on your e-mail account, though not for want of spammer ingenuity. In addition, there are the spam blogs (splogs) and related webpages -- billions of them -- offering “content” consisting random bits of text copied from other sites, or streams of complete gibberish, with a few advertising links sprinkled throughout. Shady enterprises set them up to drive up the search engine rankings for the product or company so advertised. 

So how does the NSA navigate across this bottomless, churning ocean of spam? Are there digital warehouses full of it somewhere -- systematically recorded and indexed, just in case Al Qaeda is hiding messages among the offers for online gambling, cheap term papers, and penis-related pharmaceuticals? Is there an exhaustive map of all the botnet systems out there – the networks of computers infected with software that turns them into one giant platform for distributing spam, or launching cyber-attacks? Is spam not just an irritating fact of life but a potential implement of 21st-century warfare?

Three paragraphs ending in question marks seem like enough -- and all I have are suspicions, rather than answers. A normal response to spam is to ignore it or to resent the intrusion. Thinking of it as a definitive factor in contemporary life seems … peculiar. But Finn Brunton’s unexpectedly captivating book Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet (MIT Press) demonstrates that the stuff does far more than just burden or pollute the normal process of online communication.

For Brunton, an assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan, spam must be understood as a historical phenomenon – an especially dynamic nuisance, mutating almost as fast as anyone can figure out how to block it, transforming the digital environment by constantly flooding it. In a compact formulation that becomes richer as the book advances, Brunton defines spamming as the process “of leveraging information technology to exploit existing gatherings of attention.” Its history “is the negative shape of the history of people gathering on computer networks… It is defined in opposition to the equally shifting and vague value of ‘community.’ ”

That history spans at least four decades. The origins of the term in an infectious “Monty Python” skit give some indication of the community first obliged to deal with spam: the pre-Web brotherhood of techies that emerged around ARPANET and consolidated itself via the early computer bulletin boards, MUDs and MOOs, and Usenet. “Because it’s a joke whose humor relies on repetition,” Brunton writes, “and because geeks love ‘Monty Python,’ it became a rather tedious running gag in the early culture of networked computers” for a geek to cut-and-paste the word “spam” repeatedly.

The term’s application then expanded to cover various other impositions on everybody’s patience. Someone posting Star Trek fan fiction to a Lord of the Rings group, or vice versa, was spamming. So was the con man who – around this time 25 years ago – posed as an impoverished college student, asking people on scores of newsgroups to help him out by mailing a dollar to a post office box in Nebraska. This seems to have precipitated the first massive anti-spamming effort: after identifying the malefactor’s name and phone number, the offended parties made sure he received lots of hate mail, late-night phone calls, and unwanted pizza deliveries. Brunton treats this nonviolent vigilantism as a symbolic variant of the charivari, an old folk custom in which the community expressed its disapproval by surrounding someone’s house and making enough noise to raise the dead.

Early debates took place over how best to prevent or respond to spamming – by having groups come up with and self-enforce rules of conduct, for example, or a moderator serving as benign despot, or digital charivari measures administered with extreme prejudice. The strategies and tactics up for discussion were less a product of some pre-existing community spirit than improvised responses to bad behavior by obtuse newcomers. Resorting to legal or political measures in the offline world was not really an option, given the milieu’s libertarian streak.

By the early 1990s, more and more newbies were showing up on the Internet, only to find it “governed by cliques of weird, ferocious nerds only too happy to dictate when and how outsiders could speak, but [with] no power beyond their internal consensus.” Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the advent of spamming in the form everyone knows and loathes it today: “On April 12, 1994, users of roughly 6,000 active newsgroups logged on to find a 34 line message” advertising the legal services of a couple of moderately shady lawyers in Arizona. A few months later they would publish a book called How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway, although not before provoking the mother of all charivaris: automatic phone calls filling their answering machine with noise, sheets of black construction paper faxed to their office until the machine burned out, and one of the earliest denial-of-service attacks mounted against their Internet service provider... “Usenet as a whole still operated within fairly tight limits of bandwidth, memory and cost,” Brunton points out. “Two individuals in Arizona had just enormously overconsumed the pool of common resources.”

But as understandable as the rage this inspired may have been (it’s gratifying to learn that one of the lawyers was eventually disbarred) ad hoc retribution could never have much deterrent effect, given all the money to be made. Brunton goes on to trace the rise of spamming as an increasingly despised though legal aspect of e-commerce -- and its quick degeneration into reliance on dishonest and exploitive techniques such as phishing.

Between the threat of anti-spamming legislation and the development of ever more effective tools for blocking spam, it became difficult for the merely shady businessperson to make quick, dishonest buck. The field was abandoned by just about everyone but the outright criminals harvesting credit card information or planting malicious software on the unwary public’s computers. Towards the end of the narrative, Brunton discusses a less-crooked though equally mercenary practice: the use of spammy techniques to influence search-engine results. As with e-mail filtering, search-engine algorithms are constantly under development to spot and deflect spam – which in turn inspires efforts to game the system.

Spam is “the hyper-thyroidic version of existing uses of the Internet. Spammers take advantage of existing infrastructure in ways that make it difficult to extirpate them without making changes for which we would pay a high price, whether in the hobbling of our technologies or in contradicting the values that informed their design.” And Brunton ends on an unexpectedly challenging note:

“If ‘spamming’ at the most general level is a verb for wasting other people’s time online, can we imagine a contrary verb? That is, can we build media platforms that respect our attention and the finite span of our lives expended at the screen? How would all the things transacted on a computer screen look if they took our time – this existential resource of waking, living hours in a fragile body – as seriously as they could?”

This book, the author’s first, started life at the University of Aberdeen as a dissertation -- a thing difficult to believe because it is so consistently well-written. The analytical and narrative elements are joined in a cogent and seemingly organic way, rather than through the usual shotgun wedding of methodology and source material. I have not come across so absorbing and rewarding a scholarly volume on so unappetizing a topic in quite a while. As for my questions about how spam is being processed by the digital panopticon, that's something for a later historian of spam to explore. Much later, let's hope.


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