Off-Shore Shadow Theatre

Finn Brunton, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet

MIT Press, 304pp, £19.95, ISBN 9780262018876

reviewed by Robert Barry

Two weeks ago, I received an email from a Mr Zaheya E. Attar, Secretary to the Internal Auditor of the General National Bank of Dubai, containing the promise of ‘a very confidential and profitable business proposal.’ It would seem that a consultant for Chevron, Mr. Richard Burson, having deposited $10million in Attar's branch, had had the misfortune to perish in a plane crash in 1999. ‘The most astonishing of my discovery,’ Mr Attar informed me, employing a grammar unique to the particular epistolary genre to which his message belongs, ‘was that, all records bear no next of kin, meaning no member of Late Mr.Richard Burson family knows about the deposit, therefore no member of his family will ever come forward to claim the fund.’ Astonishingly enough considering my own chequered credit history, Mr. Attar had recognised in me someone sufficiently ‘reliable’ that he wished for me to act as beneficiary to Burson's bounty, offering me forty percent of the loot in return for the simple service of providing a safe foreign bank account into which it could be transferred.

The familiar structure to Attar's pleas should come as little surprise. Nor that many of the details of this missive stand up to a bit of googling – the plane in question, for which Attar had helpfully provided the flight number, had indeed crashed; the Dubai bank did indeed have a branch at the address specified; probably, if I were to probe a little further, I would even find that there really had been a Chevron consultant called Richard Burson. For this narrative, says Finn Brunton, is ‘possibly, quantitatively, the most told and retold story of the twenty-first century so far.’ Neither is it unique to this era, for its form goes back to the nineteenth century grifters' tale of the Spanish Prisoner (explored on film by David Mamet), though in the version you or I are most likely to encounter it today, the tale has been retooled for a ‘new information environment – a space with Google in it, or over it.’

Attar's story could be one of the many stories recounted in Brunton's debut book, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet; each one themselves stories within a story. For the author takes an explicitly narrative approach to his object, launching his tale under the flag of Bryan Pfaffenberger's notion of a ‘technological drama’ to emphasise the ‘suspenseful’ uncertainty, the dialogue of arguments and counterarguments. Spam becomes a kind of literary object in Brunton's text, subject to metaphor, operating under diverse registers (legal, technological, social, even rhetorical), and on diverse stages. It is a narrative that takes us from Nigeria, to Russia, across the United States, and finally to Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, a community whose government-subsidised satellite internet connection has made it, per capita, the ‘world's number-one source of spam.’

Spam is a story about the changing meaning of a word, and how those changing meanings have changed the meaning of the network through which spam operates and changed in turn the people – you and me and everyone else – who come into contact with it. It is the drama of a glazed pre-cooked meat product whose association with wartime austerity made it ripe for appropriation in a comedy sketch. That classic skit by the Monty Python team, being quoted endlessly and irrelevantly by socially awkward college students in the early days of the internet, when the digital world consisted of but 22 lines at a time, would give its name to other kinds of off-topic, off-colour attention grabbing, and finally to a bewildering array of virtual objects from spam blogs and spam books to junk search results and dead links; the various half-lives and virtual fauna native to the internet.

Like all good stories, Brunton's book is, first and foremost, a cracking read; as thoroughly researched and referenced as a PhD, this factual essay nonetheless succeeds in reading the modern world as hard science fiction. And as good science fiction, Spam makes us question the alien in ourselves. Brunton quotes Norbert Wiener's old line about how competition with machines will tend to make you as much a slave as the machine itself to discuss how the success of the automated spam filters has affected the nature of spam – and of the spammers themselves. But aren't we all now effectively competing in the same ‘attention economy’ as those human-machines and machine-humans that create spam? In many respects, spam is a direct consequence of a the libertarian ideology with which the net grew up, and spam has changed the net as much as spam itself has been transformed by those who have sought to stamp it out.

Appropriately enough, given its topic, the real kicker of Brunton's book is tucked away in an innocuous looking attachment, one last endnote more than 20 pages after the conclusion has concluded. For ‘some theorists’ Brunton grants, ‘spam is a pure expression of the network itself: the architecture rendered explicit.’ This, finally, is why any hope of the ‘end of spam’ will always remain elusive. As this book's title suggests, spam is as inseparable from the internet as you are from your shadow.