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Reviewed by:
  • SPAM: A Shadow History of the Internet by Finn Brunton
  • Jonathan Coopersmith (bio)
SPAM: A Shadow History of the Internet. By Finn Brunton. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. Pp. xxiii+ 304. $27.95.

On a normal day, I delete 70 to 80 percent of my email unopened. Foolishly, I think I am being productive instead of wondering why I receive so much unwanted email or charting how much time I waste vanquishing it.

I viewed spam narrowly as unwanted advertisements. To Finn Brunton, however, spam is much, much more—“the use of information technology infrastructure to exploit existing aggregations of human attention” (p. 199, italics in original), or that which wastes our time and resources. He argues convincingly for very broad definitions of spam, based on the violation of community norms which hurt people’s web experience. As well as the familiar email spam, Brunton explores personality spamming, social network spam, litspam, Craigslist spam, and, most fascinating, robot-readable spam such as splogs (spam blogs) and spings (spam pings), which reflect the rapid morphing of opportunities and spammers.

Indeed, spam offers a window into the internet’s shadowy black (covert/illegal) and white (lacunae) history, including pornography, underground economies, and security that we don’t see—or don’t want to see. Just as American history cannot be understood without slavery, understanding the internet demands we look through this window.

Brunton divides his history chronologically into three periods: the early 1970s to 1994, which saw the world of non-commercial online communications work out “acceptable rules, mores and enforcement tools for online communication” (p. xxii); the privatization of the internet and the huge expansion of users, 1995–2003; and 2004 to the present, when new laws and developments in automation created more dangerous, creative, and often invisible types of spam. Each period brought a broader, more contested definition of “us” and “our”: as the worlds of networked computers evolved, so did the communities of administrators, users, and others.

One of the most important changes to the community was robot-readable media, part of “one of the great technological projects of the twenty-first century … the industrialization of text, to extract meaning, connect disparate areas, and, above all, to produce relevance and salience” (p. 112). Such objects, designed for the attention of and interpretation by other devices, sensors, and algorithms, created worlds of overlapping human and machine meaning and cooperation.

The foundation of spam depends on mismatched economics: Creating and sending spam extracts low costs from senders, but receivers incur high costs from lost time, opportunities, and access. Spam, like malware in general, was part of the trade-offs among openness, innovation, and ease of use versus restricted use, low efficiency, and security. [End Page 1034]

Although he presents the history of advance-fee fraud back to the Spanish Prisoner scam, Brunton pays only a little attention to the annoying precursors of internet-based spam, junkmail, and, more importantly, junkfax. In the late 1990s, the annoyance of junkfax for millions became the plague of spam for tens of millions. Effective filtering rendered most of what people consider spam invisible—even today about 85 percent of email remains spam, never seen and increasingly never generated by a human. Instead, in a never-ending and rapidly evolving spy-versus-counterspy battle, spam operations underwent a Chandlerian increase of size and scope as they targeted automated systems instead of humans. Entire worlds of fully computerized operations, like “content farms” which were “mass production systems for human authored text” (p. 162), evolved to game the world of search-engine optimization.

Bot spam is invisible to most human internet users, but it is profitable. According to the 24 March 2014 Wall Street Journal, a third of web traffic is fake, produced by bot traffic to trick advertisers, who increasingly use automated systems to purchase online display ads, into paying for their ads on these real websites that are never visited by humans. Indeed, the profusion of spam has consistently created markets for counterspam tools as well as for servers, cables, and other hardware, software, and services. And like any serious technology, spam has a military/national security component. Botnet spam in the form of...