Thursday, November 02, 2006

Meditations on spam

I've been called many things in my life -- but never, until today, "Emmett I. Zoratoric". The origin of this novel appellation is none other than a spam attack that appears to have kicked in about 10pm last night, the first being an "automated delivery failure" message to Emmettizoratoric (who??) at I'd say that ordinarily, a pretty small percentage of unwanted email makes it through to my actual inbox, but I counted over thirty messages that did so between yesterday evening and this afternoon -- like so many electronic wetbacks slipping across the digital Rio Grande -- and on closer inspection, found more than ten times that many again in my spambox, apprehended by the border guards of spam filtration. That makes close to 400 messages sent out illegitimately over about 14 hours, ostensibly from users of emails operated under my domain name; and those are just the ones I know about because of the automatic replies they generated.

For the last half day, phantom cyber-assholes have been taking liberties with the good name of and pestering people as far afield as Brazil, Japan, and somewhere Arabic-speaking. So, first things first: when I pester people, I do it under my own name. If any human being that is reading this happened to receive some message from Emmett I. Zoratoric, Elijah W. N. Tuneful, or anyone other than me claiming to be affiliated with this website, please delete and disregard. Someone's phishing and I personally have nothing to do with it. In any case, though, I'm sorry it happened. (Desculpe. Gomennasai. Aasef!)

It does make me wonder, though, what the hell is going on with spam. At whom are these messages really directed? Usually you can infer something about the target audience of, say, a TV show, from the sports cars, game consoles or incontinence treatments peddled in the ad breaks. Perhaps we can deduce something about the imagined recipients of spam messages from their content. Actual examples of typical subject headings currently residing in my email account include: "We cure any disease!"; "casino on net"; and "Permanent Male Enlarger + Bonus!!!" They conjure a picture of some kind of gambling-addicted, disease-ridden, financially distraught male wrestling with chronic insecurities about all things penis-related.

Clearly they've got me pegged (I wish I were kidding). But you, like me, would have to be mad, in addition to some or all of those other things, to instigate any kind of financial transaction on the strength of these unsolicited messages. And yet this is apparently the optimistic conclusion most of them are driving at. I do of course understand that, even if I don't bite at these remarkably stupid opportunities, the transaction costs are zero to send out millions of messages promoting this or that dubious product or service, so even a vanishingly small response rate from the most desperate or credulous recipients can make it worthwhile for the shadowy entrepreneurs behind the curtain. Even so, it's sometimes hard to believe that this is what real people do with the prodigious powers that technology puts at their disposal. Let me venture an alternative explanation. True artificial intelligence may still be decades away, but artificial stupidity is thriving: this is what self-aware computers with a juvenile sense of humour surreptitiously do with their spare processing power in 02006.

At any rate, believe it or not I do occasionally derive pleasure from the absurdity of some of these messages. Like the proverbial thousand monkeys at the thousand typewriters, from time to time there do emerge, if not Shakespearean masterpieces, fragments of poetry with a degree of offbeat literary appeal. Currently I find in my spam filter, for instance, no less than six separate exhortations to try "VkAGRA for LESS" (from my good friends Gittan Manos, Rhosyn Carmody, Buffy Seidell, Moriah Bruner, Agrafena Hagel, and of course Borghild Puglisi.) The body text of one is, I kid you not, an astonishing ode to Viagra itself (unintentionally, judging from the nonsense populating most others):

circulated about this particular planet.
Gentlemen-this way if you please

It's Viagra time -- roll up, roll up! Let's get the party on this particular planet started!

But the names are probably my favourite thing about spam. Here are a few harvested from my current crop:

Cadwalader Soller
Edvige Mapes
Jamaal Orozco
Happy Labrecque
Yaromira Scherer
Alaric Beaudreau
Isaac Alvarez
Haruko Weigel
Mattithyahu Samaniego
Keeleigh Legrand

I really don't know anything about the technology behind spam, and I doubt these are the names of real people (if they are, Cadwalader and co., please accept my apologies). Either way, there is, seen from a certain angle, a clue here about the burgeoning diversity in our world, the intermingling and recombination of cultures and ideas that is somehow emblematic of contemporary globalisation processes. Some of these names, given the cultural combinations they imply, would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago. Now, it's hard to tell whether they're real or not. It reminded me of anthropologist Grant McCracken's online work-in-progress, Plenitude 2.0: "The world will always fill with difference, no potentiality of being can remain unfulfilled, all that can be imagined must someday be. There is no box."

I'm no lover of spam. But, from a certain angle it affords an interesting window on what's going on in our culture -- a modest index of some of what's changing (modes of communication; increasing sophistication of automated processes; commercial opportunities everywhere and anywhere) and what's staying pretty much the same (worries about health, sex, and money).

It was reported yesterday that last month (October 02006), the size of the web surpassed the 100 million websites mark, compared to just 18,000 in August 01995 (one month after my own first encounter with the web, at the home of a family friend, on holiday in England). The number of people and machine participants in this global, hyperdimensional orgy of pointless communications continues to balloon. And with that comes exponentially increased potential for both highly productive and utterly stupid encounters between people; and between people and machines; and between machines themselves. Already, every day there must be literally billions of unnoticed interactions between automatically generated email messages and automatically activated spam filters. Our machines are talking to each other. And soon, inshallah, a whole lot more robots will be fighting each other on our behalf too! From a Guardian report last week: "By 2015, the US Department of Defense plans that one third of its fighting strength will be composed of robots, part of a $127bn (£68bn) project known as Future Combat Systems (FCS), a transformation that is part of the largest technology project in American history." (Sorry, this is simply too mindbogglingly stupid and depressing for me to comment further at the moment.)

As for the future of spam -- now there's a space to watch. As long as we're talking about people being responsible for the epidemic (rather than bored artilects), it's fervently to be hoped that an effective legislation regime could raise the spammers' risks to the point where they look for more traditional ways to irritate people. But TV advertising, billboards and garden variety spam look utterly benign in comparison to an idea Jamais Cascio wrote up last month:

The same logic could apply to molecular manufacturing spam, but MM-spam could take myriad new forms. Advertising messages etched into whatever objects get made by a nanofac. Code that tells the nanofac to use all available nanotoner to continuously print out small, mobile commercial-shouting bots. Hacks that instruct a nanofac to embed into the hardware of any new nanofac it makes commands to add commercials on whatever the new nanofac makes. I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface here, and that far more insidious and hard-to-root-out forms of nanospam are on the horizon.
Forget home-printed assault rifles and field-produced drones. Forget gray, green and red goo. The real danger we will face in the time of molecular manufacturing is spam.

From here on in, I think I'll stop complaining about my petty email troubles and start thinking harder about the insidious futures of spam. Go ahead, call me Emmett and spam me silly.

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