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June 15th, 2011 RUTH BROWN | Q & A
 

Hotseat: Finn Brunton

The history of spam, and what the Nintendo Virtual Boy can teach us about the future of media.

hotseat_finbrunton_3732GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: The Telharmonium, a primitive synthesizer. - ILLUSTRATION: David Cooper
     
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Finn Brunton is trying to figure out what the Internet “is”: What it’s doing, how it works, and how it’s evolving. Formerly a postdoctoral research fellow at New York University studying the history and politics of computing, he was recently appointed assistant professor of digital environments at the University of Michigan. Brunton is also researching and writing a book called The Spew: A History of Spam. He is in Portland this week to speak at the USENIX WebApps ’11 conference on “Dead Media: What the Obsolete, Unsuccessful, Experimental, and Avant-Garde Can Teach Us About the Future of Media.”

Brunton spoke to WW about Monty Python, Russian gangsters and the importance of the Telharmonium.


WW: So, you’re writing a book on the history of spam. Why?

Finn Brunton: Like everyone who works on the history of technology and works in computers, I was obsessed with the history of the Internet. I more and more started to realize that what fascinated me is: How did it get so crooked and horrible? 


When did spam start? 

Believe it or not, the term actually comes from an old Monty Python sketch...people on very, very early chat systems—we’re talking late ’70s—would type in the Vikings chanting “spam spam spam spam” over and over just to be obnoxious. 

But the moment it happened was actually 1994. These two lawyers—in Arizona, I believe, named Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel—had this shady scheme to make a lot of money off immigrants to the United States who were seeking green cards. And so they were like, “What’s the best place to find the kind of technically advanced immigrant who would have the money to pay us?” so they decided on Usenet [a pre-Web message board], and they were the first people to set up an automated program that would repost this message across all these different forums with an idea for getting money…. So that’s where you saw the initial explosion. Then, as the adoption of email picked up, you saw a commensurate rise in sending out spam.


But people have gotten savvier, and technology has gotten better at blocking spam. Is it still actually profitable?

Spam’s profit model has changed in some significant way over time. The technology for dealing with spam improved, and the laws for dealing with spam improved. You started to see real high-profile busts—especially after the turn of the millennium. These were people that were going to jail and facing hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. 

It’s easy to forget this, but back in the ’90s, as shady as they were with the penis pills and the real-estate scams and the fake watches, a lot of spam guys were still conceiving of themselves as being legit. They would have a company…and they paid taxes and they were trying to present themselves as “Internet marketers.” And then this one-two punch of the law stuff and the superior technology essentially wiped out this entrepreneurial model. So the good thing is: Those guys are gone. The bad news is: The people who are left are much more willing to just do out-and-out criminal stuff. 


Who are the spammers now?

I hate to generalize too much, [but] I think it can pretty clearly be said that a lot of the focus is in Russia and Eastern Europe. There’s groups there that are solidly institutionalized now, like the Russian Business Network. These kind of legendary, infamous characters are real, honest to God gangsters at this point—or at least closely affiliated with gangsters.

In many ways, we’re watching the end of spam as a primary industry.... [It’s] like those people who develop really good smuggling routes to move cigarettes and then are like, “Wait a minute, we’re moving cigarettes, but we could be moving heroin”.... You’ve built a bot, and you’re using it to send spam messages to make rent money, then suddenly, “Wait, I control all these computers—I can use them to launch denial-of-service attacks, I can scrub them for passwords, I can accidentally be in control of computers that have sensitive government information on them, and then I can harvest that and sell it to people.”


Will we ever see the end of spam?

If you’re talking about purely email spam, it’s probably not going to go away for a very long time, but it’s something most people might never even notice.... But spam is kind of a tax we pay for the way we do business online—we like to have things where comments are set up, blogs come into existence and these turn out to be great ways to spam search engines. We live in a permanent arms race. But one side of that is we have these open, creative platforms.


What exactly is dead media?

A lot of my research has involved media that wasn’t so successful and passed away like the dinosaur, or simply [became] obsolete, but [was] more avant-garde, ahead of their time, unrealized in various ways…. So it’s not even “dead media” so much as what we might think of as “failed media,” and it’s important to look at failed media because there’s a lot more of it than there is successful media. I think it has a lot more to tell us about how media works, how civilization changes over time, than the successful stuff does.


Can you give us some examples?

One people may not have heard of...was the Telharmonium in New York City. This guy had built this—something like 140 tons with dynamos and generators and tone wheels, it was basically playing this synthesizer in 1908. And at certain times, you would know it was time for a concert, so you would go to your telephone and dial in the number and mount a horn on the part where you would normally put your ear, and blast it into the room and get this guy playing Wagner up in Midtown somewhere. People loved this. The only downside was that they were sending these incredibly powerful electrical signals over the telephone system, so...you might be chatting with your friend and all of a sudden it’s like you’re trapped in this Tangerine Dream concert.

Or the Nintendo Virtual Boy—Sony and Nintendo between them produced a whole ecosystem of failed projects. 


So what can dead media teach us about the future of media or the Internet?

There’s a lot of panicky hand-waving about how the Internet is making us stupid or making us more X or Y or Z, all of which are basically present-day anxieties with the dials turned up a little bit. But I genuinely feel that we do not understand how much these systems we’ve developed are changing us and changing the culture we live in. And I’m not at all convinced that this is a bad thing, but I think it’s just that we don’t even have a grip on what incandescent light and television are doing to us—much less this amazing new wave of [technology]. 

I feel one of the major questions of the 21st century is getting a grip on that so we can begin to make some real choices about what kind of civilization we want to have. How we want to live, how we want to think and feel in the present day. Going back to dead media and looking at how they participated in the culture of their time can help us get a better grip and maybe make some better technical decisions today. 


GO: Finn Brunton speaks at the USENIX WebApps ’11 conference on June 15. Visit usenix.org/event/webapps11 for info.

 
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