Finn Brunton: Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. 296 pp. $27.95, hardcover. ISBN 13: 978-0262018876.
[The] constant co-evolutionary battle between those who seek to garner our attention through spam and those who seek to protect us from it is the theme that unites much of this book. Brunton documents many such dynamics, starting by examining interactions between spammers on bulletin board systems and Usenet groups and the administrators and users who sought to protect themselves in the mid-1990s. He then takes us through a fascinating history of commercially motivated junk email spamming, which led to the developmentof filtering software that protected our mailboxes from being inundated with unwanted messages. Here Brunton convincingly argues that the filtering software reduced spammers’ ability to reach us cheaply and thus priced many low margin herbal supplement and performance pill sellers out of the market. This ushered in the era of high-margin Nigerian wire scams, which promise to send you a fortune if you send just a little bit of money—and net as much as $2,000 per respondent. Next, Brunton takes us on a fascinating journey into the constant fight between Google’s search engine and website spammers, who at some point built artificial communities of spammy pages and fake blogs, which attracted the attention of legitimate pages and blogs so well that they managed to fool Google’s advertising algorithms for a while. Finally, the book takes a very deep dive into an incredibly rich and quite scary world of spam computer programs that will infect your computer, attempt to discover your passwords and credit card numbers, and pass them on to a rogue programmer. Here, Brunton shows that not only are such programmers in competition to outwit security firms that seek to protect your computer, they are also in competition with each other to wrest control of infected computers away from each other. The forethought, the social relationships, and the complexity of the supply chain required to steal the data and use them for financial benefit, as described by the author, would make for a fascinating horror movie—one we would all watch with bated breath.