:: Article

Attention

By Richard Marshall.

Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, Finn Brunton, MIT 2013.

Pictairn in the South Pacific is the world’s capital of spam. 45 people live there. Niue and Tokelau are also spam superpowers, also in the South Pacific. Elsewhere Monaco is too, and Andorra. Their computers have been secretly commandeered. Brunton shows how spam has changed life on-line. Most of us only glimpse the tip of its vastness. Spam is not like sand or fog or malfeasance but is specifically ‘a product of particular populations distributed through all the world’s countries…’

The ‘botnet’ uses captured computers all over the world to send out millions of virtually cost free messages. Spam is a negative shape of the history of computer communities. They target people: ‘spamming is the project of leveraging information technology to exploit existing gatherings of attention.’ Brunton says ‘attention’ is a key ingredient in all on-line activity and Spam is the measure of the difference between what we can attend to and the power of technology to exceed our attentiveness. Spammers ‘work in the gulf between our human activities and our machine capabilities.’ Bryan Pfaffenberger talks of ‘technological drama’. Spam is part of a drama about who controls, what is needful, who gets hold of needed things – it’s part of the social and political arguments about these things. It is about what we value and what we ought to value. It is significant because it is neither clear who should win nor what winning would look like. The situation is new, the landscape vast and one that doesn’t stay still. It continues to evolve and Brunton has done a great job in clarifying the immense complexities of the subject. He carefully describes and illustrates his points and offers an engaging and enlightening narrative about a subject that is a murky shape-shifter.

Technological drama is familiar through sci-fi , cyber-punk and their derivatives. Revenge effects are rife in such dramas. Frankenstein is an ur-text for this. Brunton uses the history of heavier-than air flight as his example of how new technologies are co-opted into ideological values and visions. HG Wells warned that it would lead to fascist technocrats. Le Corbusier saw planes as ‘an indictment, an accusation, a summons’ for the future, putting all else to shame. D’Annuzio the fascist and Italo Balbo the commander of Italian North Africa used flight as a symbol of fascist glamour and futuristic dynamism. The USA saw flight as part of a democratic vision taking power abroad. Technology loads its drama with metaphor and dreams and we must ask whose metaphors and dreams they are. Brunton gives the cultural history of the metaphors cross-dressing spam, arguing that without understanding the contingent nature of these metaphors the actual trajectories of Spam can’t be grasped accurately. Brunton throughout is careful to warn us not to take anything at face value. Reading this you have to agree. Spammers and antispammers seem like mirror-images doing a twisty entangled dance.

An ‘impact constituency’ refers to those on whom technology lands. The politics of irrigation in Sri Lanka was a politics to keep farmers on the land away from technology so they could be taxed and controlled more easily. Household computers are now part of this kind of drama. Lewis Mumford talked about about the creation of a bureaucratic ‘megamachine.’ Ted Nelson resisted with the first hackers and his idea of ‘countercomputers.’ There are root paradigms in the drama but Brunton warns that these are neither precise nor simply true or false. ‘They draw their energy and vitality from their unsettled condition of irreconcilable struggle within which new technologies, political initiatives, and movements an be placed and contextualized.’ He discusses how these root paradigms are mobilized to generate response and understanding. Paradigms include ‘submission to the free market, the sanctity of human life, the vital and cleansing power of war… absolute freedom of speech, communal self-defence and self-organisation, the technological autonomy of the capable individual, the inevitability of destructive anarchy without governance… the centrality of commerce to society.’ These are familiar in much contemporary discourse.

Technologies exploit ambiguities of their own foundational purpose. Groups and individuals attach to the foundational paradigms and attach them to these ambiguities so they can feed off them. The complex indeterminacy of the Internet creates the space for Spam. Spam wastes our time for spammers gain. New forms are continually being invented. Twitter spam has now started. The development of ebooks has led to Spambooks. The vast majority of all email sent everyday is spam. The numbers are enormous. Those controlling this are diminishing. As is the general interest in it as filtering hides it from us.

Brunton says there are three epochs for spam. Epoch one goes from the 1970s to 1995. This is the time when the first conversations were taking place about how the networks should be ruled. ‘It closes with the privatization of the Internet and the end of the ban on commercial activity, the arrival of the Web, and the explosion of spam that followed the green Card Lottery message on Usenet in May 1994.’ The cast list of this part of the drama includes ‘ postnational anarchists, baronial system administrators, visionary protocol designers, community building ‘process-queens’, technolibertarian engineers, and a distributed mob of angry antispam activists.’

Epoch two is from 1995 to 2003, from the privatization of the network to the Dot com bomb and the passage of the CAN-SPAM Act in the USA. Spam diversified in this period and boundaries became muddied. Phase three is from 2003 to now. It’s about ‘algorithms and human attention.’ Spammers are facing new law enforcement, powerful spam filters and user-produced content tools. To survive, a criminal infrastructure is being developed using systems of automation and distributed computing across the globe. Free from the constraints of being legitimate, spam is able to be more creative within a hard-core criminal frame. It shades towards militarization.

Brunton discusses each epoch. The first includes a history of computer networks. This epoch was about building communities, managing scarce resources on networked computers, of marking and then stopping bad behaviour. Initially these were specific to types of machine, institutions and projects. The internet allowed these to talk together. It grew but most networks were isolated from others. They developed within their own protocols, codes and groups. Then supercommunities were started which allowed for greater communication and sharing across networks. Communities were porous and borders invisible. The term ‘community’ was freighted positively. ‘Spam’ was created as a provocation and limit test to the warm feel of these ‘communities.’ It highlighted the tension in the concept of community between infrastructure and expression, of capabilities and desire. Spam requires us to notice that even if nestled in a ‘community’ we are obliged to attend to our own infrastructures and consider in whose name are they operating. It’s a grab for developing self awareness and the possibility of refusal. It reverses the Deweyian idea of a community based on a ‘general interest’ and replaces it with a ‘reactive public’ that is forced against its will to pay attention. In these terms Spam dislodges complacency and compliance. It is a way of reminding us of our obligation to stick it to the Man.

The constraints limiting early computers contributed to spam development in the early phase. Repeated use of a single word was able to fill the infrastructure with a prank message more quickly than real messages. But it was more than merely a prank. ‘It acts as a provocation to social definition and line drawing – to self-reflexivity and communal utterance.’ Spammers self-defined. There were four types: royalists, anarchists, technolibertarians and parliamentarians. Royalists wanted responsibility of spammers to be in the hands of wizards (system admin staffers). Wizards work in a world of merit. It was a tiny world. It was a world profoundly different from the market and the compromises of democracy. The wizards were trusted because they could do the job. Cultures were blended: academics fused with militia and with wizards. This weird and unique culture was matched by the strange technological culture of computing manufacture. Microchip production, for example, takes place in a clean room measured in terms of particles larger than a micron. A surgery has 20,000 per square foot, a clean room one at most. This was the era of Paul Edwards’ ‘cold war computing’. Containment was the key idea: ‘a closed world space: enclosed and insulated, containing a world represented abstractly on a screen, rendered manageable, coherent, and rational through digital calculation and control … a dream, a myth, a metaphor for total defence, a technology of closed-world discourse.’ There was a bubble of trust and shared understanding.

It was a small local space the size of a small town populated by smart townspeople. In this early environment attention and bandwidth were scarce. Waste was a concern, and so too the definition of waste. Who gets to say what waste is? Systems developed were not from the market or the militia but from wizards working out their protocols. MIT Anti-Vietnam messages in 1971 emerged: THERE IS NO WAY TO PEACE. PEACE IS THE WAY’ was a seminal message. It was a quote from AJ Muste, a Christian pacifist and anti-Vietnam activist. Wizards began to hack these messages using their privileged position. Autodidactic hacker wizards were strangers to that alternative universe. They wanted minimal interference from outside. Rifts between the ‘community’ of users (market, academic, military) became exposed. The idea of junk mail and spam arose as ‘containment leaks’ and solutions of this small world were discussed in terms of personal self-regulation. Complex primatives grew: systems were pressurized to be learnable increasingly quickly.

As computing expanded into the home the more recognizable shape of spam emerged. Internet use used systems that were cheap to send things on but expensive to receive. The battle between users and powers that be became clearer to see. Wizards – now ‘barons’ –were able to censure information from other sites by refusing to copy messages from one site to theirs. Bryan Pfaffenberger is a key writer on this. All speech was allowed so long as it didn’t threaten to crash the system in some way. Spam was not abuse if understood in these terms. But the anxieties around developing netiquette seemed to encompass more than could be left in the hands of Wizards. Technolibertarians held that defensive software tools will provide a purely technological solution and no governance will be needed. But no one could find the badly behaved. In March 31, 1993 ‘a project designed to manage a threat to the social containment system for spam turned into a disastrous source of automated spam – to the social problems produced by the project of totally free anonymous speech, we can add technical problems of putting a stop to it.’

Parliamentarians wanted to regulate wizard powers and communities through votes and semi democratic structures. They wanted to control the Net before the Department of Justice officials started to get involved. Anti-spam social enforcement used prankish methods that were mirrors of the alleged spammers bad behaviour. These were the chivari, ‘a distinct network-mediated social structure, a mode of collective surveillance and punishment for the violation of norms and mores.’ The crisis of control led to sidestepping the wizards. Home based computer users moved from Usenet to the Internet. Canter and Siegel’s April 12ths 1994 ‘Green Card Lottery’ chivari attack on 6000 new groups underestimated the scale of its provocation. ‘Two individuals in Arizona had just enormously overconsumed the pool of common resources.’ Parliamentarians were too slow to respond. Counter-chivari counter bombed offenders and their hosting wizards. The outrage was that the original chivari attack had ignored the importance of salience. Spam became whatever was off-message.

Epoch two’s chapter is titled ‘Make money Fast.’ After the opening epoch we confront a ‘dense matrix of overlapping and interacting actors and forces – the infrastructure of network protocols, hardware and standards, activist groups, hackers, lawyers, demography – with feedback loops , arms races, struggle over resources, and reinventions all going into making spam.’ This epoch is about developing threads of the concept of community, entwining the capture of attention with making money, collective organization and the law. Spammers of this epoch ended up badly. They tended to be shallow and damaged people. In this time spam feigned respectability and in the end failed. In so doing it reshaped the web. To understand this epoch the book chunks it into four separate aspects: a struggle between a spammer and a vigilante anti-hacker; the second chunk chronicles an anti-spam battle on Usenet; the third examines the Nigerian 419 messages; the fourth is about the co-evolution of search engines and their spammers.

In this epoch Spam becomes a domain of proliferating niches looking for inexpensive and unregulated ways of getting audiences. Sex lines is an example, hosts in leasing countries structured business round taking a per minute cut of calls from the USA. Host countries made massive money. ‘Sao Tome kept approximately $500,000 of the $5.2 million worth of sex calls, using the money to start a new telecom system.’ This is strange. As Brunton puts it, ‘ lonely, sexually frustrated Americans unintentionally built telephone infrastructure for an island they had never heard of off the coast of Central Africa.’ Some spam self-described itself as legitimate, others as crooked and out for themselves. Many worked in between these two positions, ambiguous and grey.

Chivari campaigns became increasingly brutal and deeply invasive vigilante acts of social pillory. Before filtering and botnets and the war of algorithms it is possible to see the quotidian work of a massive spam operation. The miliuex was strange, involving ‘people in a complex relationship with legitimacy, accepting the cost of getting ripped off with some regularity in return for being able to operate largely outside the space of courts and contracts, in an informal part-criminal economy.’ Spammers exploited each other. Antispammers were considered sad geeks by the spammers. Spammers were just trying to make a living; antiapammers were ‘anti-commerce net-nazis’ etc. The anti spammers were annoying but not a deterant. Laws were slow even when they finally did catch up.

Antispam used Spam as a poison which when properly applied is its own antidote. Usenet had the ability to cancel previously sent messages if sent from the same author. Forged cancels allowed antispam erasure, which in turn led to mission creep and issues around authorization and targets. And what happened if bullies, bad actors and trolls got hold of the technology? The capacity to cancel messages wasn’t an unambiguous good. It set off endless cat and mouse chases between spam and anti spam, ratcheting up a Road-runner effect. In the Warner Bros. cartoon written by the brilliant Michael Maltese, Wile E. Coyote tries to catch the Roadrunner using elaborate plans. It was originally designed as a parody of Tom and Jerry but became popular in its own right. Its own momentum undermined its effectiveness as parody. Antispam finds itself in the same bind in this epoch. Antispam metaphors were difficult to construct to display why spam was negative. Thinking of the Internet as a space allows for spam to be seen as a violation of the spatial boundaries. But just as thinking about a hospital in terms of it just being a building would be an error, so too the internet as a space fails. Usenet is a protocol, but also twenty million people in active discussions without legal or proprietary control. Metaphors have consequences and so are important.

Virus has one set of connotations but other metaphors could have been used, such as weeds. Brunton argues that metaphors have influenced the way technologies have grown and practices with them. Virus picks up the idea of bodies being attacked from outside and needing external exterminators; weeds pick up the idea of gardens where care and pruning doesn’t rely on external bodies. Metaphors have long shadows and complex implications. Company fax.com was moving 800,000 unsolicited faxes a week by 2002. The 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (amended in 1997 to allow prosecution of junk mail) meant you could take the business sending them to court and grab their assets. But this ‘doesn’t scale up to the rapidly growing population of spammers.’ The question was; ‘is it worth the … trouble to send off a search through the backwoods of Vermont for a potentially armed neo-Nazi whose profits are buried in caches of precious metals somewhere?’ Florida became a good place for spammers because it offered great protection for real estate from civil judgments combined with gentle antifraud statutes. Favourite products being shifted were herbal medications, stock touting, insider trading, porn, laundering and fraudulent philanthropic organizations. Spammers countered anti-spammers arguing they were legit businesses being pranked by extremist anti-capitalists. Free speech issues were being raised. But new antispam bills suggested a target not of bulk mailing but rather content. This was ‘chilling’ 1984 stuff for Brunton. Such bills failed in committee.

Techno solutions were considered. Spammers needed compliant or at least inattentive ISPs. Liability could be attached to these. A question was how to make this fair? ‘Watch where the new language is turning up and where the lawyers collect, usually in that sequence’ says Timothy Case. The relationship between the law and the Internet as a whole is thrown into clear relief by consideration of Spam. In 1996 antiapammers were beginning to develop new ideas. The charivari had a new official headquarters, NANAE, ‘complete with complex ideological discussions, in-jokes, and a great deal of slang and folk-lore.’ It was an archive of Spam in the making. Documents resembled a global police precinct. Its system admin tools began elaborate campaigns of surveillance, tracking messages and ownership of accounts to trace and identify spammers. But what could NANAE do once perpetrators had been traced? 9,600 baud squalks in the ear didn’t deter. The wizards in charge of this had to work out social strategies. They included giving detailed instructions of how to shop spammers to government authorities. They were geographically explicit and detailed. Government regulation resulted in making some Spam acceptable.

CAN-SPAM was introduced by John McCain. It held responsible either the sender or the entity advertised. It meant sender addresses had to be valid, ads had to be clearly marked as such and there had to be an unsubscribe option. It led to arrests. Robert Alan Soloway was caught for fraud, money laundering and identity theft in 2007. It didn’t slow down spam growth though. It created a phony reactive valid forms culture with huge batches of working email addresses created as free accounts all over the world. At the same time filtering technologies emptied out this rapidly self-legitimating culture of email marketers.

Paul Graham writes that the problem with the law against spamming was that ‘the worse class of spammers ignore them’. These would take over after the clear out caused by the filters changed the spamming universe. New Spam arrived ‘spun out of ancient stories and globalised ruin.’ Nigeria and 419 spamming started next. 419 is the Nigerian criminal code referring to advance fee fraud. It is the adopted name for the genre fraud abroad. These are not Spams for products but narratives about Globalizations’ failure from which you can profit. It is a persistent con. They are quaintly Dickensian and sinisterly corrosive. They play to romance. The scam is predicated on generally accepted understandings and feelings about society. Society is corrupt and the scam merely re-enacts the corruption of exploitation. It appeals to the idea that business is always corrupt and so it is a natural transaction being offered. They reenact tragic history involving ghosts of Halliburton, Enron, Shell, Swiss bankers and Nigerian corrupt elites betraying the people. They play on the cynicism of the recipient who thinks ‘Why not? Everyone else is doing this.’ The winners in the scam were not the guys working the internet cafes but their bosses, who were already the corrupt elite. Racially charged and stereotyped perceptions enabled it. How many responded to the scam? There are no clear figures. Shame and gullibility hide confessions. Nigeria has been scarred by being associated with spamming even though main spamming comes from the USA and then (much less so) China, Russia, UK and Brazil. 419 has added to the unease about Nigeria and fed into a disturbing and shameful racist discourse.

Nolywood is a subgenre of 419 films ‘devoted to the travails, disasters and moral turpitude of the scammers who prey on one another and their own people.’ A videotaped genre. Nkem Owob’s satirical movies are representative: ‘I go chop your dollar’ is his soundtrack for his ‘ The Master’. ‘ National Airport na me get am/ National Stadium na me build am/President na my sister brother/ You be the mugu [the fool, the mark], I be the master/Oyinbo [whte person] I go chop your dollar/I go take your money disappear’. The whole world is corrupted. Owob is figuring it out in our faces like a Nigerian Stewart Home.

The art of misdirection responds to readability. Techno readability use glyphs such as bar codes that are designed to be read by machines. Some elude human readability and are only machine readable. Counter-technologies design misdirection and camouflage. CAPTCHA (‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart’) have been developed to detect the difference between a machine and human. The robot can be tricked, the human reached. In the next epoch of spamming involves co-evolution of search and spam.

Google frames the context and technological ground for epoch three merely because of its dominance. By February 2011 Google was source of 65-67% of all USA searches. Yahoo! and Bing and all others trail far behind. By now Google is essentially all there is. If all others shut down, nothing would change. The top three results on a Google search get 58% of the clicks. The key strategy of spammers is to be in the top three to optimize adverts carried there . Search engines have spiders, an indexer and a query handler. Spammers have their own spiders and harvesters and followed search engine development. Hidden at the bottom of innocuous pages (matching text colour to page background e.g. grey on grey) ‘lay a magma flow of obscenity and pornography, product names, pop stars, distinctive phrases, cities – whatever got a good return at the time.’ They exploited the human/ robot biface reading distinction as technology became more sophisticated. Third generation development in search technology ‘took the side effect of social side effects of a hypertext architecture… and folded it back into the system, treating it like any other form of data.’ Google built in social value into rankings, such as reputation, so that links were treated as measureable expression of social value. Robot reading couldn’t do this and so Google’s third generation took on the keyword stuffers and link farmers. Social value dampening is harder to spam. This damping factor is according to Brunton ‘underappreciated as an antispam strategy. It’s a subtle gradation of how rank passes through links, how far reputation can go before its effect decays into nothing.’

Boredom is the source of damping. This third generation approach is the source of Google’s dominance. It solved the problem of relevance to search and so reduced randomization caused by searcher frustration. Mass of citation and reputation produces a socially verified evaluation of social value. Spammers responded by creating their own artificial societies so that values could be skewed to their ends.

The third epoch is the epoch of this spam strategy and antispam responses. To filter spam in this new context requires identification of a spam corpus not confused with any non-spam e-mail corpus. This proves complex and mind bogglingly hard. Ongoing is the attempt to create a defining corpus out of the Enron collection of emails examined as part of the investigation into the crashed organization. ‘As a human document , it has the skeleton of a great, if pathetic, novel: a saga of nepotism, venality, arrogant posturing, office politics, stock deals, wedding contractors, and Texas strip clubs, played out over hundreds of thousands of messages. The human reader discerns a narrative built around two families, one biological and tied by blood, and the other a corporate elite tied by money, coming to ruin and allying their fortunes to the Bush/Cheney campaign’. Using this as a test case corpus it became clear how unclear it was how to decide which of the messages were spam and which weren’t. Its an ongoing piece of work to try and construct tools to create this Enron corpus. It is only a hope that the result will be the basis of a larger more representative public spam corpus. But this is slow work. Scientific communities trying to grip spam – indeed many things digital – are often too slow. Spam is too dynamic and changes too fast for the scientific antispammers.

Better is Paul Graham, a programmer of Lisp language and successors. His ‘Plan for Spam’ essay is very important. His plan wiped out spam as it existed then. But a new spam was invented that exploited his solution to the old spam. His plan involved a new form of filtering. ‘The tactics include an economic rationale for anti-spam filters, a filter based on measuring probabilities, a trial-and-error approach to mathematics, and a hacker’s understanding that others will take the system he proposes and train and modify it for themselves…’ It allowed machines to identify spam rather than humans. The degradation of having to get into the mind of a spammer is removed: a machine does that. Adopting a naïve Bayesian statistical analysis is the base of this. The analysis exploits the weakness of the spammer, which is that her text is in plain sight. Analysis of the probability of the text being a spam is simply a matter of statistics. Naïve Bayesian algorithms are good at inductive learning tasks such as classifying documents. And where a message is misidentified and put in a spam box it doesn’t take much time to redress the mistake. Graham’s plan was about speed. It was nothing like the patient corpora-building use of Baysesian anti spam initiatives of the scientific community. It was ramshackle, cheap, fast semifunctional and out of control. Graham’s was a chatty essay full of code examples not a technical research paper presented at an academic workshop. It went viral and had enormous impact.

The new filters killed off conventional spam language, it made it a lot harder to make money through sales and it vastly increased the failure rate of spammy messages. So new spam paradigms were developed. Spammers responded with litspam, literary cut-up texts statistically reassembled to take advantages of the Baysesian filters. Spam messages started to use the language of duplicitous language. Surrealist, dada, Oulipoean robot-made language messages Queneau and Le Lionnais wouldhave been proud of functioned as spam messages subverting normality via constraints to elude filters. Mass mailings stopped and bespoke ones started. Phising, identity theft, credit card scams, infecting computers with virus’s, worms, adware and dangerous and crooked malware emerged. Spam became more criminal, more experimental, massively automated. Literature was used rather than randomly using a dictionary (because most words aren’t used much). Most language falls down a very long tail. Sci-fi literature is often used by spammers for this reason creating an eerie po-mo self-referentiality. Neal Stephenson’s ‘Cryptonomicon’ is one such. Stephenson notes, ‘ When the Cryptonomicon spam was sent out, it must have generated an immune response in the world’s spam filtering systems, inoculating them against my literary style. So this could actually cause my writing to disappear from the Internet.’ Spam is 85% of all mail traffic on the other side of the filters.

The new epoch closed down any pretence of legitimacy for spammers. Without the constraint of having to act legit spammers had greater freedom to experiment ruthlessly. It targets the 15% stupids who respond to spams or don’t bother with filtering systems. These are the old, the confused, the second language users, and the new users. Splogging, content farms and social spam were developed. This was how the appearance of an alternative society came about. Sam Beckett didn’t think cut-up techniques were writing but plumbing. Splogging is plumbing: ‘lay the pipes, the tank, the cut-off valves, and then open the taps and leave the room. A splog production system will pull in RSS feeds from other blogs and news sources, chop them up and remix them according to rules, insert relevant links, and post the resulting material, hour after hour and day after day, with minimal human supervision.’ They are automatically garnered and generated to fit with Google’s search engine algorithms. Google makes 97% of its money from advertising. Spammers are thus making the greatest use of the technologies and economies available in a non-anomolous way. CAPTCHA is still a big hurdle for spammers. There are humans on poverty level wages being paid to fill in the characters because so far no robot is human enough to read CAPTCHA. Kevin Kelly asks, ‘What if spammers come up with an artificial intelligence before Google does?’

A worm is a single program operating across many machines. It exploits idle processing power, a parasite program able to operate on its own, unlike a virus that uses existing other programs. The bots they use then can be used to knock sites off line for days at end and ruin their reputation as reliable secure servers for enterprise clients. They are a transition from tool to weapon. Spam becomes a program in a botnet platform. This scales up the operation of spamming to something unbelievably huge. The whole internet and everyone using it is now the domain. This distrupted computer power creates a ‘victim cloud’ and controllers of these bots can monetize it by producing spam. Botmasters vie for control over these clouds. Making money requires snooping the captured computer files for usernames, passwords, email contacts, financial information, secrets and other useful material. This info is then sold to a thriving underground economy. Some sell their botnets as a whole. The market transnationally hops about. The spam economy isn’t a bad living. It’s better to lease a botnet than own one. Profits per ten credit cards is about $200,000.

The Storm Worm was a super worm unleashed in 2007. It was very fast but also startlingly powerful technologically. It acted as a vast spam factory. It has become a laboratory for anti-spammers experimenting and researching spam. Researchers keep encountering each other and the results of their work on this botnet. It is a case of postmodern self-referentiality. Who owns and created Storm is still unknown. Storm resists investigators. It has massive computing power and so retaliation is worrying. Africa will be the next botnet resource, home of about 100 million PCs, 80% infected with malware. Once these switch from telephone dialups to big cables then a huge population will be added to the cloud. This is coming. It will add to the prevalent racist discourse about Africa by setting it up as a Continent of stupids.This will be dispicable.

The militarization of spam is the latest phase. Email spam is a giant presence but is boring. DDoS attacks are the panic sources. They threaten to kill networks of companies and countries. Spamming becomes merely a minor incidental part of the system, ‘reinvented as part of a new language of threat.’ Estonia nearly lost their networks in 2007 when the government removed a contentious bronze statue of a Soviet soldier in Tallin. 128 distinct DDoS attacks over a fortnight against key sites brought this about, and resulted in ensuing conversations about the botnet role as geopolitical warheads. ‘Cyberwar’ became an attention-grabbing rhetorical phrase. Rapid response and knowledgeable security management offsets attacks. Talk of a ‘digital Pearl Harbour’ or Hiroshima was heard. Cyberwar doesn’t make you bleed but destroys everything. NATO was part of the response to the Estonian attack. The place of spam in the rhetoric changed the nature of spam talk. Spam spoken of as a minor irritant has become a norm amongst most users.

But as both threat and annoyance the Military discuss Spam in the shadow of the botnet as something sinister. Major institutions began to paint Spam as having potentially big consequences again. Spam and associated botnet technologies can be appropriated and co-opted into a variety of narratives. A criminal infrastructure has replaced ‘days when hundreds of dubious bit players with some office space , a couple of rented high-bandwidth connections, and a bunch of cheap PCs with off-the-shelf mail marketing software could build a business around stock touting and potency pills….’ Now there is a tiny remnant controlling over 80% of Spam. They generate the hundred billion-plus daily Spam message load. The biz is very centralized. As is its infrastructure. A population of a very small town affects part of the daily lives of the planets’ entire computer-using population. A small group of criminal spammers of talent and vision create the equivalent of the meat world’s Globalised criminal networks of covert markets and franchised criminal organizations developing efficient supply and demand operations of drug smuggling, counterfeiting and human trafficking. Infrastructures are brittle. A few arrests can leave huge holes but eventually newcomers plug the gaps. As our attention changes in complex ways – think of the way social media such as Twitter and Facebook have changed the scene – so Spam changes tack and its metaphors. Software finds it hard to keep up with the transition. ‘Spammers – the disbarred lawyers, impoverished con artists, would-be pornographers, credit card thieves, and malware coders – are the avant garde, the wildcatting exploiters of this transition.’

Bruce Sterling says of this great book: ‘ Finn Brunton has done mankind a service with this coldly objective analysis of a great human evil. The ghost in the machine is ourselves.’ The book is jammed with exciting detail and smart analogies. It prevents readers getting drowned in techno-babble. But Stering’s comments run a little against the grain of the book. Spam is not an evil because it isn’t a settled thing with a settled moral meaning. Brunton makes us pay attention to something we’d rather not pay attention to. In doing so he draws us to a complacency about our role as agents. The meanings of the book far outreach the Internet and its travails. There are messages here that line up with Jaron Lanier’s of ‘You Are Not A Gadget’ and ‘Who Owns the Future’. It asks us to be more aware of the shadow consequences and alliances our use of ubiquitous technologies brings about.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR.
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 19th, 2013.