Spam & What's Yours Is Mine, book reviews: The loss of internet innocence

These two books examine how brave new internet frontiers inevitably spawn a darker side.

If there's one lesson the internet has taught us, it's this: community does not scale. Every new element -- 1980s bulletin-board systems, Usenet, email, the web, game worlds, Facebook, Airbnb -- begins with warm, feel-good stories about the wonderful things the new connections have made possible. Then, with growth, these stories give way to tales of abuse. In one early-1990s internet sensation, for example, a Chinese cellist is cured of a rare illness by far-distant doctors who found her parents' posting. More recently, a New York woman can stay in her home and pay her medical bills thanks to her ability to take in guests sent by Airbnb.

Yet forming right alongside, as Finn Brunton writes in Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, is almost always the network abuse known as 'spam'. And as the internet embraces commerce, also right alongside, as Tom Slee writes in What's Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy, are less happy stories that change the picture back into Richard Barbrook's familiar Californian ideology. Instead of the happy, hippyish "what's mine is yours" sharing economy, Slee finds Silicon Valley's biggest billionaires appropriating the lot.

Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet

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Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet • by Finn Brunton • MIT Press • 270 pages • ISBN: 978-0-262-52757-6 • £11.95

"Mail is easily deleted," internet pioneer Dave Crocker wrote in a circa-1973 discussion about appropriate email use, "and so 'junk' mail is not really a serious problem." But even then, as Finn Brunton tells it, the makings of modern spam were already in place.

First: what is spam? It's easy to say that one person's unwanted junk is another person's "Oh, look! Cheap Viagra!" and claim no definition is possible. Brunton usefully defines it this way: "Spam is the use of information technology to exploit existing aggregation of human attention." It's a good description precisely because it focuses on behaviour and circumstance rather than content. Opponents of spam controls such as filtering and forum moderation complain that they're a threat to free speech, but, as Sarah Jeong argues in her recent ebook, The Internet of Garbage, so is being drowned out and driven offline.

The difficulty, as Brunton concludes, is that the consequences of the design changes we would have to make to eliminate spam would remove the benefits of being online in the first place. The aggregation of human attention is what links the many types of spam Brunton considers: spammers have colonised Google's search engine links just as much as they have email, Facebook messaging, or Amazon's ebook platform. What unites them all, Brunton writes, is "a disregard for the time and attention of others".

In this book you won't find practical advice on how to deal with the stuff that's clogging up your internet tubes. But Brunton's shadow history has much that's surprising, even for those who lived through the internet's early days (and even for someone he quotes). He wanders into discussions of charivari, a form of vigilantism and the tale of the Spanish Prisoner, the original version of today's advance-fee fraud spams. Understanding how spams subvert community is an essential step, he argues, in learning to build platforms that respect our attention.

What's Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy

Tom Slee is probably too young and too Canadian/British to know it, but his whole book could be summed up by a single question and answer from the 1961 Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks routine The 2000 Year-Old Man. Reiner: "Robin Hood...did he really steal from the rich and give to the poor?" Brooks: "No, he didn't. He stole from everybody and kept everything...He had a fellow Marty, Marty the press agent."

As Slee tells it, no matter which country or what sector "sharing economy" companies spring up in, eventually the pressure of venture capital turns them all into the same predatory structure. Lyft began with ride-sharing, Uber began with limousine service -- and now both derive the bulk of their income from paid amateurs, bypassing municipal taxi service regulations. Airbnb began with the couchsurfing.org model of sharing accommodation and now derives the bulk of its revenues from a small percentage of users who advertise myriad listings. Zipcar took the old idea of the car-sharing cooperative, made it a widespread business, and now belongs to Avis.

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What's Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy • by Tom Slee • OR Books • 212 pages • ISBN: 978-1-68219-022-7 • £12

In each case, As Slee hilariously compiles, every "sharing economy" company has its origin myth, which it uses to try to make true believers of its customers. In reading Airbnb's "Inspirational Technology Tale" of the students who made rent by advertising airbeds during a conference, an internet old-timer may flash instantly back to eBay's origin story about Pierre Omidyar's wife's desire to trade collectible Pez dispensers -- a story that Wikipedia traces to 1997, when a PR manager invented something more media-friendly than Omidyar's rhetoric about creating a perfect market. eBay was, of course, the first online reputation system, and began as a way for people to sell off their unwanted attic clutter and small craftspeople to market their creations, but -- like all the others -- has long since been predominantly occupied by commercial sellers.

Media stories tend to frame the issues in binary terms: Airbnb versus hotels, or Uber versus rapacious taxi regulators. The reality, as Slee writes, is more complex. Airbnb's impact on hotels is negligible, but the effect on communities is not. We have eBay and yet still have yard (UK: boot) sales. But in my small area of London, the council has designated five parking spots for Zipcars. To my knowledge one of those spots has enabled three people to sell their cars, a net gain of two parking spots on a tiny street and somewhat less driving overall. But what are the chances that the council will allocate further spaces for competing car clubs or cooperatives? This small amount of road has been effectively privatised, along with a tiny piece of the municipal transport infrastructure. The exchange of money, Slee writes, crowds out community motives.

The pattern of communitarian sell-outs to large companies has filled internet history: Goodreads, Abe Books, and the Internet Movie Database all belong now to Amazon; Gracenote began as an open-source project to compile CD metadata and sold out to Sony (and now belongs to Tribune Media). Slee quotes Hugh Sinclair, who finds the same pattern in microfinance, which morphed from peer-to-peer lending into a market-driven industry that looks little different from the loan sharks it replaced. Slee writes: "Taking a charity and turning it into a bank is, as Sinclair says, a great way to build assets and then capitalize on them."

Intimacy scaled up, Slee writes, is no longer intimacy. Instead of casting these issues around employment or even, as Slee quotes Tim O'Reilly as saying, an economic shift led by software and connectedness, we should be viewing them through the lens of power, money and influence. As these companies bypass regulations, they become attractive to the entrenched businesses they seek to replace -- and become a vector for those companies to do so, too. Why should Uber get to classify its drivers as independent contractors when Fedex is stuck with employees? The "sharing economy", Slee concludes, is not a fix for social problems.

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