Friday, September 05, 2003

The Nutritional Value of Spam?

I've been thinking, maybe there's some good that comes out of that constant torrent of junk e-mail. Sure, it's time consuming and a pain, but I'm wondering if it's also doing us some good by making us more critical consumers of information? Although the potential positive I'm thinking of also applies to advertising in other forms of media, I think there's a crucial difference with e-mail which I'll also discuss.

Spam is full of dodgy claims about larger body parts, nigerian money, becoming more youthful, etc etc, and maybe it helps teach us that just because someone says something is true, and just because they've given reasons and justifications for why its true, doesn't mean that it is true. That is, perhaps spam helps us become more discerning about what is a valid justification for a claim.

You might say that, well, people fairly quickly pick up the fact that that all spam is rubbish and from then on simply ignore it. I'd agree with that to a certain extent, but I don't think it necessarily invalidates the idea I'm thinking about. I still think that before someone will competely dismiss all spam off the bat they are likely to have read some. And judgement of the worth of spam's claims must play some part in the decision to ignore it.

I don't know the answer to the question, but I'd be interested to know whether it has already been considered by anyone. Analagous questions in more traditonal forms of media, such as junk mail advertising or radio or tv advertising, may have been considered. There are also analogous issues outside the field of advertising, such as the effect of new media technologies, such as the printing press, on the critical perspectives of people in societies.

But coming back to e-mail, I think spam is different in one significant sense, because spam is locked into an arms race with anti-spam software and measures. As anti-spam software becomes able to identify messages as spam, the spam evolves to outwit the anti-spam software, and so on. It seems likely that spam will therefore become more and more subtle and will find smarter ways to get its message across.

For one thing, spam is likely to camoflage itself a lot better. I can imagine a situation where a person posts to a newsgroup praising the quality of a product being discussed -- where this 'person' is actually a spam-bot (sure, this sort of stuff goes on now, but people have to write it and thus there's economic constraints on its quantity).

The question is, to what extent will people be dragged along in this arms race? Will people have to become more discerning judging spam claims -- and thus any claim they faced with? Will this strip all the guff from peoples judgement centers - so people can no longer belive things simply because their buttons have been pushed?

It'd be nice to think so, but to come close to an answer would require a lot more investigation and consideration than I have given, and more than I can right now.

This whole issue reminds me of the statement that's been made that much of the behavioural complexity of creatures, including humans, derives not so much from the creatures themselves, but their environment, or rather the interaction between those creatures and their environments. Ants are, for example, quite simple creatures, but they can perform some quite complex behaviour because of the complexity of their environment (which includes the physical environment and the other ants).

I'm also reminded that things tasting bad is often an indicator that they are poisonious, but also that just because something may leave a bad taste in your mouth -- like your spinach and brussel sprouts of the world -- doesn't mean it's bad for you.


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