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Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet

by Finn Brunton
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013
304 pp. Trade, $27.95, ₤19.95
ISBN: 9780262018876.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


“Spam.” Hear the word and what comes to mind? A mystery canned pork product first introduced in 1937 and still popular today? A 1970 Monty Python routine about the meat? Repetition of an in-game action (think chat, grenade, weapon, or skill spamming)? Unsolicited and undesired electronic messages from Nigerian princes or sales pitches for increased erectile potency? If you spend much time online, chances are you think the latter.

As Finn Brunton argues in his book Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, such a response to the word “spam” is only the tip of the iceberg. Spam, he says, has a history, a significant importance to our current online community interactions, and will be a key factor regarding how we build future media platforms.

First, the history. Burton traces spam through three epochs of online communities: 1970s-1990s, the early, noncommercial computer networks that became the Internet; 1995-2003, the dot.com boom, online entrepreneurs, and the first efforts to regulate spam; and 2003-present, the ongoing war between spam and antispam. Burton divides his book into three sections, one for each epoch.

For the first epoch, Burton recounts the conversations between the architects of the earliest computer networks and their efforts to work out rules and enforcement tools for online communications. The cast includes anarchists, system administrators, visionary designers, community builders, engineers, and activists, all talking with text. Spam was undesirable, repetitive, excessive, or interfering text.

The second epoch, a period of just eight years, focused, says Brunton, on “money and the balance between law and collective social action” (xxii). The dot.com boom and the proliferation of online entrepreneurs diversified spam to include search engine manipulation, stock market schemes, fraud campaigns, and password requests. During this epoch, counter-spam efforts included message filtering programs, surveillance, research, even harassment.

The third epoch, the present, continues the debate and struggle over uncertain territorial boundaries online, and the relationship between what algorithms can process and what humans can read. Anti-spam laws are dramatically enforced, powerful spam filters are widely utilized, but the proliferation of user-generated content tools continues. In response, spammers build automated, distributed computing technologies that oftentimes support global criminal infrastructures.

Brunton’s point throughout is that spam has a consistent definition: “the use of information technology to exploit existing aggregations of human attention” (199). Seen from this perspective, spam is more than junk mail and telemarketing. It is an information technology phenomenon, native to networked computers, and drawing its properties from those of the technology it uses, the “shadow history of the Internet” of Brunton’s title. Spammers take advantage of the information technology infrastructure in ways that make it difficult to remove or block without hobbling our networked technologies or compromising the values that created them. We could, Brunton says, make spam far more difficult to produce and distribute, but the price would be a loss in volume of data to which we have access and the speed of that access. Additional losses would include the openness and ease of our communication channels and social interactions, and the usefulness of having anonymity and ambiguity available in technical specifications and social mores. Without spam, it is difficult to understand the foundational conversations that shape our lives online.

In the future, spam, with its theme of disregard for the time and attention of others, or simply put, wasting other people’s time online, may promote more serious imagining and practicing of online interactions. As Brunton suggests, the results might include “a careful arrangement of meaningful information relative to our unique interests, needs, and context. A graceful interjection at the right time, a screen that does not demand a look but waits for a glance, words that are considerate that we humans and not our filters will be reading them” (204). In the future, spam will not disappear. It will remain, perhaps continuing to be rude and obnoxious, produced by machines or crowds of humans. Or, it could be respectful of the time and attention of its recipients, not distracting, but rather waiting for our reference and reflection. As a shadow of the Internet, spam will be shaped, contextually and in practice, by participants of online communities and their desire for respectful communication with one another.

In the end, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet describes spam, how it works, and how it is shaped by online communities through the conscious and/or unintended manipulations of the information technologies that form our digital communications networks and our efforts to develop governance for ourselves in these online contexts. As noted in the Monty Python comedy sketch, spam seems to be present in every dish. That fact will not change in the future, but Brunton’s interesting and informative cultural history will help us understand that every time we go online we unwittingly participate in the sophisticated and continual struggle for territorial control over the Internet and the online worlds it fosters.

Last Updated 1 December 2013

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