Science Book a Day Interviews Finn Brunton

Finn-BruntonSpecial thanks to Finn Brunton for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet

Finn is an Assistant Professor in Media, Culture and Communication at NYU Steinhardt.

Finn’s Homepage: http://finnb.net
Finn’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/hagarfalk

#1 – Why did you feel the need to write this history of spam?
The general area my work explores is adoption and unintended consequences of technologies — how we (the big “we,” lots of different kinds of publics and groups and subcultures) take technologies up and transform, hack and mod them in ways never envisioned by their creators. And much as I’d love to write about everything (for ages I was working on a book just about knots) my focus is on digital technologies, especially networked computing. Spam is one of the great, strange, ubiquitous unintended consequences of networked computing, hence this book!

#2 – It seems that spam has been with us for decades in one form or another. You talk about much of the work that has been done to combat it. Do you think we will ever have a spam-free internet?
I don’t — but that doesn’t mean we’ll have V1@GR/=\ messages forever. One of the takeaways from my book is that “spam” isn’t so much a single coherent thing or class of thing, like acacia trees or helium. It’s a flexible term that people online have used for decades to negotiate about what’s acceptable use of the network. “Spam” is wherever the edge of okay behavior lies — which is to say that we keep moving the goalposts. Now there’s all kinds of borderlines where advertising or content production or social network use and abuse edges into spamminess for some users (almost never all). Particular examples come and go; as a way for us to talk about salience and values it’s going to be with the network for a long, long time.

#3 – Your book highlights many different types of spam. Some ingenious and others a re-working of age-old cons. What is your favourite type?
There are some that just fascinate me (as you can tell by the litspam section, where it’s clear that I’m in love with the weird angularities, juxtapositions, and rhythms of algorithmic text!) but I’d have to say the Spanish Prisoner aka 419 aka advance-fee fraud aka Nigerian prince spam. It’s been going on for centuries; the earliest examples I’ve found are just after the French Revolution. It’s like a perfectly constructed little machine for taking advantage of some human cognitive biases and models of the world, and it’s amazing to read text from the turn of the century or the 1810s that’s pretty much instantly recognizable as something I got yesterday.

#4 – It seems like spam is almost biological in the way it is modified, the way it works. Do you talk about any biological parallels?
I do, a little bit — like Kathryn Myronuk’s much-quoted analogy that “every complex ecosystem has parasites” — but I tend to be a bit careful about biological parallels. They’re often subject, especially when it comes to computers (and technology generally) to what I call “analogy creep,” the drift from “I’m using thing A to help you understand thing B” to “thing A is like thing B.” Computers are sort of like brains except they’re *really really* not at all like actual brains. I draw on biological metaphors when I discuss some phases of spam in the book but anything beyond analogy is apples to oranges in terms of the real, empirical nature of the respective phenomena.

#5 – Do you have a post-spam book on the horizon? Are you working on a new book?
Yes! A couple, actually … but one of them builds directly on this one. It’s still in a research stage where I don’t want to say too much about it yet, but one of the things the spam book circles around is what attention means on digital technologies. And the next book is going to be about technological attention and its future.

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