Let’s talk VisiCalc. Let’s talk about the latest in cassette tape storage and leading-edge Kaypro technology. Let’s play Dark Castle and King’s Quest. Let’s swap files on this cool BBS I know – it’s in the 212 area code but I’ve got a blue box so we can make the call for free! Let’s make glittering mobiles out of CD-ROMs from America Online. Let’s spell Microsoft with a $ and get into huge fights about PGP and the X-Files mythology on alt.cyberpunk. (My duster is around here somewhere.) Let’s build HyperCard stacks and awesome websites in FutureSplash Animator, scored with 96 kbps .mp3s found on Napster, and debate the consequences of the Clipper chip and the Y2K bug.

Finn Brunton is an assistant professor at the School of Information. His book, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, was published in March by the MIT Press.

Finn Brunton is an assistant professor at the School of Information. His book, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, was published in March by the MIT Press.

On second thought, let’s not, because all of those things are part of the past – part of the historicity particular to information technology, which can simultaneously be in living memory and yet more archaic than the Pharaohs. A few things have persisted in daily experience and common usage: some of those companies, the fundamentals of the technology, and a handful of debates. And spam, both word and thing, though the thing now bears almost no resemblance to what it was when it began, decades before. Why is spam still with us? And when will it join those recent-but-archaic events in the history of the network?

To understand the future of spam means understanding the past, and the first lesson of the past is that spam’s meaning is fluid and variable. It’s a very special word, applied across many forms of misbehavior on the Internet, all of which share a common thread: exploiting the attention of other people, both individually and in aggregate. It starts with reference to tedious reenactments of a sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus – an amusingly dumb way of interfering with other users on the system, swamping online communications with repetitious noise – and makes its way through prolix verbosity, domineering conversational practices, and the walls of monotonous text generated by malfunctioning programs. The word doesn’t even connect with commercial activity until 1994, on Usenet; from there, it hops over to indiscriminate mass emailing, to blog comments, to web pages designed to manipulate search engine results, even to the “lifestyle spam” of individuals overusing social networks as an advertisement of their posh happiness.

The production of fraudulent and commercial mail, generally as a vector for malware, remains a successful business for a small group, but also a profoundly fragile one – relying on a surprisingly small group of banks, ISPs, and developers to maintain profitability. The future of that form of spam is not bright: a form of chronic but manageable loss, like merchandise shrinkage (that is, shoplifting) in retail, unlikely to ever be eliminated entirely even with the best regulatory goodwill.

The more important, and scarier, future of spam lies in taking advantage of social technologies to produce precisely targeted messages directed at high-value targets. This so-called “spearphishing” can produce massive returns on effort, with some research and social engineering simplified by how much data about ourselves we make available out of habit, and filtering systems pushed to the edge of their capability by messages that exactly mimic a person’s actual communications.

New forms of “spam,” for new values of that word, are already taking shape on the major social platforms; they are propagating into spaces like ebook publishing and even video. Even as the forms of spam we knew, as we flame-warred on Usenet, are passing away, the word will continue to serve as a sensitive social barometer at the intersection of laws, technology, and norms, of what the right use of the Internet should be, and where the boundaries of our attention are drawn.