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Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet

Series: Infrastructures
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The vast majority of all email sent every day is spam, a variety of idiosyncratically spelled requests to provide account information, invitations to spend money on dubious products, and pleas to send cash overseas. Most of it is caught by filters before ever reaching an in-box. Where does it come from? As Finn Brunton explains in Spam, it is produced and shaped by many different populations around the world: programmers, con artists, bots and their botmasters, pharmaceutical merchants, marketers, identity thieves, crooked bankers and their victims, cops, lawyers, network security professionals, vigilantes, and hackers. Every time we go online, we participate in the system of spam, with choices, refusals, and purchases the consequences of which we may not understand. This is a book about what spam is, how it works, and what it means. Brunton provides a cultural history that stretches from pranks on early computer networks to the construction of a global criminal infrastructure. The history of spam, Brunton shows us, is a shadow history of the Internet itself, with spam emerging as the mirror image of the online communities it targets. Brunton traces spam through three epochs: the 1970s to 1995, and the early, noncommercial computer networks that became the Internet; 1995 to 2003, with the dot-com boom, the rise of spam's entrepreneurs, and the first efforts at regulating spam; and 2003 to the present, with the war of algorithms -- spam versus anti-spam. Spam shows us how technologies, from email to search engines, are transformed by unintended consequences and adaptations, and how online communities develop and invent governance for themselves.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31394-0
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-X)
    (pp. XI-XII)
    (pp. XIII-XXIV)

    Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific is the smallest and least populated jurisdiction in the world, described by the first mariner to observe it as a “great rock rising out of the sea … about a thousand leagues westward to the continent of America.”¹ It’s a lonely place; when theBountymutineers needed a refuge from the global empire whose laws they’d broken, they sailed for Pitcairn and vanished for almost two decades. As of last year’s electoral rolls, there are 45 people on Pitcairn, most of them descended from the mutineers. There is a government-subsidized satellite Internet connection for...

  5. 1 READY FOR NEXT MESSAGE: 1971–1994
    (pp. 1-62)

    Life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity.

    —J. C. R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, 1968

    Those who buy into the myth that Cyberspace is a real place also believe that this illusory locale houses a community, with a set of laws, rules, and ethics all its own. Unfortunately, the perceived behavior codes of Cyberspace are often in conflict with the laws of more substantive lands like, for instance, the United States of America.

    —Lawrence Canter...

  6. 2 MAKE MONEY FAST: 1995–2003
    (pp. 63-124)

    The theory of the opening is one of the most fascinating aspects of chess. The options are initially so limited, and the areas of focus still few. From the first move, the complexities proliferate with an enormous multiplication of the space of possible future moves, and long term strategies open like fans as both sides mobilize and threats appear. Within the first ten moves the game is often decided, and the remaining twenty or thirty moves are just the gradual confirmation of the truth. To manage this complexity, chess players rely on a cognitive approach called “chunking,” as popularized by...

  7. 3 THE VICTIM CLOUD: 2003–2010
    (pp. 125-198)

    We have machines capable of reading, analyzing, judging any written text. But it is precisely the reliability of the instruments on which we must run some checks.

    —Italo Calvino,If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

    If you can’t get to grips with the spammers using law, censure, and protest, can you instead get to grips with spam itself? How do you get a handle on it, and how do you make it something you can measure and quantify, talk about coherently, understand—and therefore attack? It is an etymologically restless thing, at once noun and verb, that thrives wherever...

    (pp. 199-204)

    What, then, is spam?

    “Spam” is a word with remarkable properties. As this history has demonstrated, the meaning of this word has remained surprisingly consistent through enormous shifts in technology and scale. At the very outset of this book, in the fourth paragraph, I emphasized the diversity of values assigned to “spam.” Doing so was necessary to frame the argument and the history for readers who thought of spam solely as unsolicited email for timeshares and Cialis and to introduce them to a term that encompasses time-wasting loquaciousness on Usenet in the 1980s and the planet-size criminal infrastructure of botnets...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 205-228)
    (pp. 229-254)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 255-270)