Graham Parker has been making art with found data for the past decade. His latest project is Fair Use: Notes From Spam (Book Works; £14.95). The book comprises five pamphlets that explore the historical, personal and environmental aspects of spam. Parker also writes about scambaiters, people who engage with spammers in order to play elaborate pranks. They’re confident of their superiority to spammers–perhaps too confident. Vanity is, Parker notes, an essential ingredient of any con. –Christine Smallwood
How much does spam resemble con games of the past?
It has a certain sense of the potential of the network. The Union Pacific going west was loaded with ideological baggage: claims by its owners and the robber barons who were driving it about the promise of freedom. Ben Marks, a small-time grifter, just observed what it did. Marks ran three-card monte games on the trains and was the first person to move his con off the trains and onto a fixed point on land in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He realized that it was better to fleece a transient population as it passed in front of you than to be part of that population. That’s what spammers do as well. They develop an inadvertent map of how the network operates and create a great mass of dye in the water that can be followed to see what the machine does.
Have you sent any spam yourself?
I wouldn’t know–spam is something that tends to be diagnosed by other people.
Do you have a favorite type of spam?
Yes, there’s a particular spam trope, which is advertising fake Rolexes and fake college degrees. Embedded in its source code are fragmentary sentences that always mention a year from the last two centuries and then popular search terms. So it might say, "In 1895, Britney Spears Powerball." "In 1974, Vietnam War Pepsi-Cola." Occasionally the map we have of that period would appear to correspond with the spam fragment. But spammers use those phrases because the message has to pass through the filters. There’s a very public battle between the spammers and the filter writers. Each is teaching the other–you train your filters according to the spam that has already been received: "Viagra," not "Vipagra." So spam must find new algorithmic ways of creating legitimate language. Another of my favorites is when they steal text from nineteenth-century novels. It’s in the canon; of course it’s going to pass through the filters.
Why is the book called Fair Use?
It’s a little bit of a provocation. In some ways, fair use is the argument the spammers make: the network is there, and it’s entirely legitimate to use it for spamming. Also, there are examples of fair use that exist within the network, public or quasi-public-domain materials that are exchanging hands. I’m thinking in particular of a scambaiter who received a spam e-mail from Nigeria and in turn e-mailed the gang an image of a painting that shows various dead celebrities [James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Elvis Presley]. The baiter wanted to know that he was speaking to a human and not an automated message. So he asked the recipients in Nigeria to re-create that image, which they did. The gang sent back several images of themselves in a bar re-creating the poses from this painting. It’s a kind of Turing test–Alan Turing proposed a test of how we were going to tell computers and humans apart.
What do you like about the language of spam?
The linguist David Maurer wrote a book called The Big Con, a linguistic study in the 1940s that inadvertently ended up being the great sociological study of the con trade in America. In it he describes a device used in the early twentieth century called a cackle-bladder. It’s a small piece of pigskin that’s filled with chicken blood and can be used to produce special effects. I once received a spam e-mail that had the subject line "Cackle-bladder." I’m probably the one person on the planet to get quite so much joy out of that. The other one that I really liked was when I found a Samuel Beckett quote in spam, which was, "To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now." I think it was selling generic software.
Do individuals or programs plug in the quotes?
You need individuals to run the program. One thing that attracts me to spam are the faint traces of humor and irony and spectral agency that appear in some of the lines. Nineteenth-century novels tend to get plundered for data–Jane Austen’s Persuasion, or The Master Key, the L. Frank Baum story about a boy who experiments with electricity, the last line of which is, "It’s no fun being a century ahead of the times!" Or Great Expectations. There’s this vague, faint sense that someone’s chosen this for a reason. And the fragments culled from the novels are often very pleasurable in that context.
What are your thoughts on privacy online?
We routinely put into the public realm data that would have once been routinely private. And we feel entitled to have access to all the information we want, when we want it, all the time, unfiltered–a pure neoliberal ecstasy of information. But we reserve the right to feel violated at any time. As for spam, it seems to be quite a useful way for thinking about some of the hypocrisy around globalization: this information goes everywhere, freely, in this apparently frictionless environment, which compared with the movement of people is a huge and obvious disparity. But we don’t want to see it; we don’t want to deal with it. We want to ignore it; we want our filters to control it; and we don’t particularly want to know how those filters operate.