• “To put this history and this book into a single sentence: spamming is the project of leveraging information technology to exploit existing gatherings of attention” (xvi). “Spam survived and prospered by operating in the edge cases around these big ideas, in the friction between technical facts and the root paradigms that are expressed in them where powerful concepts like trust, anonymity, liberty, and community online were reinvented, modified, and sometimes discarded. In following spam, we will explore how these ideas evolved and, above all, how human attention online, and the strategies for capturing it, changed over time” (xxii).


  • “design constituency,” “but to the entire body of people who participate in the design and who stand to directly benefit from the technology’s success (xvii). “To understand any technical event in depth, we need to be able to describe the full range of interests in the work of the design constituency” (xviii). Compare w/ the design work in Bratton, Kraus, and Rosner. The opposite of design constituency is “impact constituency.”
  • “What I am calling the charivari is a distinct network-mediated social structure, a mode of collective surveillance and punishment for the violation of norms and mores” (44); it’s also eerily close to Anonymous and doxxers.
  • “biface”: text that signifies differently to both humans and machines (118).


0. Introduction

  • “Attention, the scarce resource of human notice, is what makes a community on the network, and the creation of communities, the invention of ‘we’ on the Internet, is an act of attention. Communities and spam as a whole are projects in the allocation of attention, and spam is the difference — the shear — between what we as humans are capable of evaluating and giving our attention, and the volume of material our machines are capable of generating and distributing when taken to their functional extremes” (xvi). Cybernetic feedback loops.
  • Brunton’s analytic tool is the “technological drama,” suspenseful and narrativized; the focus in on feedback loops, but also on storytelling.
  • “What makes these relationships of design and impact into a drama is the back-and-forth of technological statements and counterstatements” (xix).
  • “The presence of these [root] paradigms gives technological deployments the thrilling, and often later inexplicable, attraction of social movements (because that is, in fact, what they are). They draw their strength from roots sunk deep into the earth, where the bones of prior orders and the ruins of previous civilizations underlie the present” (xxi).

1. 1971 – 1994

  • “The first [epoch of spam], from the early 1970s to 1995, begins with conversations among the architects of the earliest computer networks, who were trying to work out acceptable rules, mores, and enforcement tools for online communication. It closes with the privatization of the Internet and the end of the ban on commercial activity, the arrival of the Web, and the explosion of spam that followed the Green Card Lottery message on Usenet in May 1994” (xxii). This section is mostly about the development of protocols to classify and combat spam.
  • “In many ways, the most remarkable thing about the word ‘spam’ is its transitivity and portability. It is used to talk about completely different kinds of activity, not just on different websites or applications but on completely different networks” (1). Spam originally retained a “local character” unique to the machine and network in question (2).
  • This section maps the early techno-scene found in Turner and Malloy. Hah!: “It was an ideal situation for a scholar of digital culture looking for convergent shapes and genealogies, but a nightmare for an engineer seeking efficiency and interoperability” (4).
  • “Spam” as the obverse of “community” (8); the words have a “productive blurriness that makes them into platforms” (8). “The cardinal problem within the virtual community, the problem that spam exploits and aggravates, is the tension between infrastructure and expression, or capacities and desires” (9). Interesting to think of infrastructure as a “capacity” rather than a mediating circuit.
  • “The great microchip fabrication assembly plants that put the silicon in Silicon Valley are built around the production of a strange environment — unique on earth — called the ‘clean room.’ The room’s cleanliness is defined by the number of particles in the air larger than a micron, a micron being about a hundredth of the width of a human hair. A surgical operating theater has perhaps 20,000 of these particles in a square foot; a clean room has one, or none” (22); mentions here of Edwards. Brunton also alludes to later work by Edwards (I assume A Vast Machine) and a discussion of planetary-scale botnets.
  • “These practical issues of standardization led into a still-thornier territory of desires and constraints, expressed in design . . .” (25)
  • “An ontology is an understanding of the world, a sense of how it is arranged and of the state of things. Blanket generalizations about ‘human nature’ are ontological statements. So are library classification schemes, which arrange sets and subsets in the order of knowledge — this is a part of that and therefore should be managed in a way that reflects their relationship” (26); connect this to OOO and the idea of the “stack” as an organizing ontology.

2. 1995 – 2003

  • “The next phase lasts about eight years, from 1995 to 2003, or from the privatization of the network through the collapse of the dot-com boom and the passage of the CAN-SPAM Act in the United States. It is about money and the balance between law and collective social action” (xxii).
  • Method for dealing with complexity: “We need to begin chunking as chess players do, gathering the common threads and significant moments ‘to assemble,’ in Latour’s phrase, ‘in a single, visually coherent space, all the entities necessary for a thing to become an object’” (63–64).
  • “Our approach will follow spam as it becomes entangled with laws, national boundaries, and the evolution of online culture, with the layer of algorithmic mediation growing in influence. This chapter brings together four chunks to provide an overview of the network getting rich and exploitable, getting public, getting complex, and getting truly global — a transformative process of ‘massification’ (to use a term from Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey)” (66).
  • “Aside from the feeling of having gained access, by way of the metrics of search returns, to some repulsive stock ticker for the reptilian hind-brain, such blocks of text also illustrate a recurring theme in the development of spam: a matter-of-fact distinction between humans and machines, with different strategies for dealing with each. As spam becomes more sophisticated, more technically complex, and demanding of greater skill to produce, this distinction becomes more prominent” (118).

3. 2003 – Present

  • “The most recent phase, from 2003 to the present day, turns on these questions of algorithms and human attention. A constellation of events is dramatically changing the economics of the spam business: the enforcement of laws, the widespread adoption of powerful spam filters, and the creation of user-produced content tools” (xxiii).
  • “How do you turn it into a material you can work on? How do you make spam an object?” (125); “Spam comes into a computer lab with as much of a halo of strangeness as a chunk of cavorite — H. G. Wells’s fantasy material that resists gravity, with which scientists fall up to the moon — and with similarly strange and innovation-demanding effects. After all, what is this human-machine, innovative-criminal, social-technological, maddening yet unstoppable thing?” (126). Note the weird affect here.
  • Spam analysis depends on tokenization, or whole-message obfuscation (127); “There are distinctive patterns and topologies to users, their folders, the network they inhabit, and other behavior. We are not all pretty much alike, and acting as though all email corpora are created equal is like a chemist deciding to just ignore temperature” (129). Solution? Folks started using the Enron papers as a representative corpus!

Archive and Impact

  • Brunton anticipates many of the moves that Hu will make two years later in A Prehistory of the Cloud, insofar as he knits together a technical analysis of spam with attention to its broader cultural effects—something that the media archaeologists do, of course, but with a heavier emphasis on the technics than the culture. But this is still fundamentally a book of history in the vein of Edwards.
  • Brunton’s categorization of spam has parallels to my working theory of the interstices of stacks: spam is a weird thing that emerges from the shear between levels of a system (10).