Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Spam as a metaphor for our times

We appear to be reaching a point with spam where the purpose is no longer to communicate with humans, but to avoid filtering programs. Spam aims no longer to sell; it aims to survive.

My spam filter caught a piece of mail advertising– well, I’m not sure what. But a couple things caught me about it: the subject header ("What are the washing instructions?"), the opening line ("animal era grill hecatomb ampere haynes temporal grille pokerface livermore cowpox ell"), and generally, the amount of nonsense the message contained:

When I have fears that I may cease to be, Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain.
No one ever lost his honor, except he who had it not.
You’ve got to ask! Asking is, in my opinion, the world’s most powerful — and neglected — secret to success and happiness.
Procrastination is one of the most common and deadliest of diseases and its toll on success and happiness is heavy.
Learning. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.
Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.
Desire, like the atom, is explosive with creative force.
Labor is the curse of the world, and nobody can meddle with it without becoming proportionately brutified.
To give an accurate and exhaustive account of that period would need a far less brilliant pen than mine.

The thing that strikes me is that none of this has anything to do with selling anything, and I don’t think that anyone who looks at the message would think, "Gee, there’s a lot of junk information here, I think I’ll go visit the Web site!" Unless I’m terribly wrong about human nature, noise is not something that generally builds trust– though perhaps the incomprehensibility of technical manuals, and the wackily broken English of Japanese manuals from the 1970s, proves me wrong.

The irony is that the search for meaning– embodied in this case in filtering software that’s becoming increasingly sophisticated and better able at filtering signal from noise– is generating yet new forms of noise aimed at overcoming that search for meaning. There’s some kind of weird co-evolutionary thing going on here.

What would Philip Dick have made of all this, I wonder? What secret messages or hidden patterns would he have detected in this stuff?

[To the tune of Louis Armstrong, "Blue Skies," from the album Louis Armstrong And His All-Stars.]


  1. I’m a writer and marketing guy, and I’m baffled by all the nonsensical gibberish that is spam today. I can’t imagine why anyone would spend so much time and effort to broadcast this across the Internet. Maybe some people have one purpose in life: to annoy others. It surely can’t have anything to do with commerce.

  2. Alex,
    This pastiche of quotations from Keats et al was probably used by the spammer to avoid spam filters: Bayesian filters are particularly susceptible to being fooled by long strings of meaningless, though very non-spammy, words or phrases. A few lines from Keats or the King James Bible will do the trick nicely. So I doubt the intent was strictly just to pass on some lines of verse: was there a discreet URL in there too? If so, and you click it, you may find yourself on a site selling Viagra. If not, I agree with Lloyd, that someone out there is just trying to annoy others. But I doubt it. I work for an anti spam company, and we see this stuff all the time. Believe me, there is money to be made in employing Keats to help you fly under the radar with a Home Mortgage opportunity. The first trick for spammers though is to get past the filters.
    Thus, as much as I’d love to read something deeper in all this (and I’m sure Philip Dick would do a much better job than me), I see nothing but spammer opportunism. But again, we fight this stuff every day, so I’m probably just jaded…

  3. I find it fascinating that the simple technical goal of outwitting spam filters is starting to overwhelm actual marketing. It’s like a store giving up retail in favor of smuggling.

    Is it really the case that if you can get past the filter by any means, you then stand a chance at getting someone to refinance their mortgage?

    It makes me wonder if the defeat of spam might ultimately come from sellers realizing that their efforts are being drowned out, not just by spam filters and competition from other media, but by the very messages that purport to take their own “message” to readers.

  4. The existance of Spam and computer Viruses, raises a somewhat paranoic Chinken&Egg hypothesis.

    Question – who benefits the most from these things?
    The answer is obvious – companies who sell Anti-Spam filters and Anti-virus programs. Who knows if these companies do not make sure that everybody and especially big commercial organizations (who have more money than private individuals) are continuously bothered by Viruses and Spam, and thus continue buying and upgrading their anti-Spam/Virus programs?

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