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By Peter Conlin, 13 October 2014
Image: Cover of the Voyager Golden Record

A short story about information rag picking and unsolicited communication


I am the general manager of the international company IFSD Incorporated and I have a favourable offer for you concerning the world and professional life and what I see as the future. Today I bring you news about the S and R System, and how you might benefit from this information.


I’ll begin with a distinct impression I had today. Somewhere in the world the email I sent had been deleted, that very instant. The decision, if it can be called that, was made and a click or two later my attempt to contact had been eradicated. It seemed to cry out in the darkness, like a nano-planet and all its inhabitants destroyed; and therefore I felt like crying out in the otherwise pleasant afternoon. My intention had been voided, dispersed into some virtual trash bin on a server somewhere in Utah or Hamina. In a few hours it would be oblivion as we know it today – a few blank sectors on some industrial hard drive soon to be written over by another email, from someone else to someone else, quite possibly spam. Not that my email wasn’t spam, of course it was.


I have to deal with all the psychic fallout. ‘Take me off your mailing list’ they want to say. ‘Please remove me from your insidious algorithm’. I can see that they clearly lack an adequate level of certain neurotransmitters even though, ironically, I am providing links to websites selling pharmaceuticals which would elevate them. Not that someone is actually writing these things, or even reading them – machine written for machine readers with unintended effects and once in a while produce revenue. This machine-to-machine communication has permeated the framework systems that deliver ideas and education. Beyond this is the question of human-to-extraterrestrial communication, and how might this affect the spam system and strategies around motivation and learning.


Greetings to you, whoever you are. We come in friendship to those who are friends.
Greetings to our friends in the stars. May time bring us together.

We strive to live in peace with the peoples of the whole world, of the whole cosmos.

(from ‘Greetings in 55 Languages’ on the golden record The Sounds of Earth attached to the Voyager 1 satellite which was the first human-made object to leave the solar system.)


Then the screen lit up again. Doubt me if you will. Abruptly he shifted the subject. Even Chester grew nervous at this. The attempt had failed. Soon a magic wagon rolled up.

(Spam email content, circa 2008)


But I am getting ahead of myself here and this is simply on the level of sending. In terms of the messages I receive, there is really only one kind of email, variations of one message. Each time I check my email I am looking for indications of disaster. I want definitive news. The big news that has been imminent for so long. What else can I expect? Good news is of course anticipated, but this is in the face of doom. That is why it's good. Fear is the only content of an email. Why doesn't it happen? We're waiting, so ready for this calamity which might offer a final entry into the lost city of gold. But maybe no email is bad news. Something has happened between send and receive, and the ashes of data servers are blowing across the prairie producing a more tangible site of disaster than an empty inbox. Perhaps there is a ruin befitting all those wasted emails. I understand them, their plight. Like salmon on their end run or the brief life of a mayfly, minus procreation.


I cut my teeth back in the spam-lit days, when systems drew upon literature to confuse other systems. Formative times and I emulate them in all other ways. All this has left a mark, the mark of spam. Sooner or later I became as useless as the spam I sent. A life not lived, spammed. My spam to yours. Everyone misconnects in this way. Almost useless, that is, except for that tiny percentage that makes it all worthwhile. I became the slim yet carefully calculated margin driving the whole unsolicited scheme.


In this S life I came from X precinct with its social bracketing. I am a lower tier C with a diagnosed status-income disequilibrium. I was selected in school to join the helping professions, the professions of therapeutic authoritarianism, possibly become a lower-level virtuecrat if I played my cards right. The volunteer co-ordinators instructed that candidates must feel confident in a complex, dynamic environment in order to avoid becoming out of step with advancement. After achieving a leaving diploma in sustainable conservation, the machine trained me, refined through crowd-sourcing, to become a minor reward regulator. No global salary, just a local hourly wage with no special ability to access to the public-private consortium. Not so bad, could have easily been raising chickens at home, knitting hacky-sacks to sell at craft fairs or studying criminal justice and collecting for the securitisation machine.


Perhaps earlier I yielded to a millenarian tendency in describing one’s inbox as simply a repository of doom. Maybe it’s more a celestial beach with its flotsam and driftwood sculptures. The things that come in are unwanted, mostly scrap or demands. But occasionally I come across something, the one that stands out: no pitch, no links, just a few words. Could I explain the whole thing—how it came here, why would someone send it, why someone would respond to it, and sooner or later, explain reality. A shut-it receives it randomly much like the aliens receiving the golden record on the Voyager satellite which will be explained later.


But my relatively adequate circumstances were short-lived as we were facing a period of change. I had a diploma saying that change can be a positive experience or it can also be a very unsettling one. I attended the sessions where it was my opportunity to share my concerns regarding the restructuring of the proposed Project Sapphire. I was then initiated into spam.


The city kept shrinking with much of it sectioned off, levelled or moth-balled like jets in the desert able to be reactivated under the right circumstances or at least protected as a high quality supply of parts to be cannibalised. This was not like late 20th century Detroit, more like a futuristic battle of Dunkirk. On the way to work I pass through the new fields, the blue-fences not of construction but contraction, and finally through a few active sectors or lone habituated buildings. There are farm fields, part of the agriculture-urban landscape, along with the finest Glaxo-Ark clinics that combine machine intelligence automation with some of the best social solutions to bodily problems. Saturated colours and platinum awnings extending from tent architecture that looks splashing and can be easily moved to zones in need, not to mention disposed when the time comes.


A city-scape where the expectation has been punctured, but nothing has taken its place. In the interim the view is cheap and cheerful. ‘Receptive parts of the city’ as they were called, like a guileless inbox. Underneath the technological formations are extensive, but unlike like the past these ‘experiments’ must be concealed as barely visible peaks of vast and submerged infrastructures. Above it smog, above this spam, possibly as significant as the stars in the night sky: oracle, harbinger, and of course, warning; but beyond this role of prophecy is the unsettling idea that what distinguishes spam from non-spam is not as obvious as it might seem. But what is it, and is another spam possible, is there any other spam but this one?


I should know. I usually give a vague response when asked what I do. I refer to something within that vast nebula between IT and marketing that encompasses most work and social energy. My boss is proud of the business and saliently occupies his position on the bleeding edge of guerrilla marketing in a fully networked society, riding the line between scam and unconventional bargain. In this way he both embraces and denies the reality of spamming. Email should not be discredited as a legitimate medium for direct marketing, and the more direct it is the better with the objective of total access. I am a more reluctant entrant into this work. It’s like a mild version of working in porn or selling recreational drugs. It’s generally not something people grow up dreaming about, it’s something you fall into, a non-vocation, when other things don’t come to fruition. This is spam itself, a cunning and objectless rage. It is a prospect when the others fail to make their seemingly miraculous connections. It is just a relatively easy way to make money being the bane of people’s online existence. We don’t steal identities that I am aware of. It is more complex, they are gifted to us through promotion and interaction. Lost in your passwords, watchword fatigue? It doesn't matter, passwords are never enough. Besides we are often, like everyone one else, just serving our clients, and what exactly they want from spam is not for me to decide. We make ambiguous offers of things people already want. The harmless and annoying life of a house fly, buzzing around, sopping up a little sugar from an errant blob of marmalade or the rat minding its own business which turns out to be someone’s wasted share.


Our office is on Communication Row in a somewhat depressed medium sized-city. Although the name appears ironic or overly-apt, there isn’t much ICT on Communication Row. This isn’t Infinite Loop or Silicon Round About, whatever those street names were supposed to be about. It’s part of the interminable rust belt. The street name dates back to the Victorian period and has an old canal on one side. It’s communicable like certain forms of conjunctivitis rather than anything digital. Our office is in a post-war two story building and has sat empty for years. Perhaps we could have squatted it or just worked from home, but we need the paperwork and business certifications so we can write it off as expenses and appear as legitimate as possible. It’s a two room office with a big ‘one-in-a-hundred’ sign plastered on the wall and some production targets. Depending on who you talk to, only one in a hundred or ten thousand of spam emails receive a positive reply, and our operations are all centred upon this occurrence, this reliable fluke. The predictable anomaly is where we come in. This ‘one’ (in hundred, thousand, million) is not the marginal or minority, it is a portal, an opening to never-ending transactions.


But whatever happened to hard graft and the straight forward 9-5 route? What about nurturing opportunities for external partnerships within a firm that aligns research with knowledge exchange? Apply your intellect and skills in an inclusive, value driven and flexible setting. Ambitious professionals working in digital areas forging strong research partnerships with professionals working at the forefront of their industry. A role for someone who is innovative and flexible and understands the changing demands of the contemporary workplace and who can demonstrate innovative approaches and enhanced outputs, and so on. As for me, I’d rather be a part of a mechanism that produces a regular annoyance. Rather be a part of something somewhat ominous, but is really just part of life like traffic or the sounds of jets above an average city.



Let’s think about golden dreams, the stars and the deep implications of unsolicited communication. NASA placed a noble message aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 satellites. It was a kind of time capsule, intended to communicate the story of our world to extraterrestrials. The Voyager message was carried on a 12-inch gold-plated phonograph record containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, which is to say, an unconscious transmission of technical modern genius and corny humanism.


What is the Golden Record? NASA describes it in the following way: ‘The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee, chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University, assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim. Each record is encased in a protective aluminium jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played.’


I was always struck by this gesture – not just belief in extraterrestrials but action; and not just life out there somewhere, in some life-form, but record-playing humanoids, essentially Americans in deep-space without realizing it, waiting for a golden disk stuck to space junk to come whirling by so they could throw it on the stereo and listen to some far-out tunes, and marvel at the etchings on the B-side: DNA helix, physical unit definitions and the golden section. The audacious mix of twee and cutting-edge engineering was the real message we were sending to ourselves via deep space. Cosmic spam if you ask me. I don’t have a problem with superior beings and extraterrestrials, I just assume that to take the proposition seriously is to realise the limits of our imagination. There could well be highly intelligent prokaryote organisms, out there somewhere in a crevice of frozen gas, deep within the surface of some moon who are so creative and mysterious they decided to avoid the humanoid ET root altogether. Beethoven will not stir them, planetary maps and chemical definitions will receive little response. There is only one way to reach them: YOU HAVE WON!!! Congratulations!!! You have won $250,000.00 from Pepsi Company award 2010, Please provide your Full name, Age, Sex, Country, Occupation; All your problems can be solved by stored testosterone release; cheap Viagra; you have pending notifications; Most girls believe that bullfrog living with judge figure out light bulb behind midwife; Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2009 Sp1; Permanent En1arged-Penis; and so on.


Much as I would love to imprint this on a golden disk, I think it has already been transmitted. My inter-stellar exploration program requires neither rocket nor radio-telescope. Our Earth has been irradiating the cosmos with incredible savings, impenetrable gibberish and heart-felt memorandums for quite some time. The message is already on its way, perhaps already received. The obsolete spam is as resilient and perplexing as ice-bound extra-terrestrial bacteria, so in this way they will have received the message so completely as to fuse perfectly with the transmission. Perhaps the bacteria-spam will then produce off-spring and at last unite the galaxy.


People think I am cynical for expressing such thoughts. But I think it is ultimately cynical to be offered either lame humanism or to be written off. I don’t think big, I think survival, I think S; and in that way they are right. But name one grand project and I will reveal spam’s lips giving it a kiss of death—the doomed touch it needed but couldn’t disclose otherwise. Just like that golden record stuck on the side of the deep-space probe, which only now do we fully realise is spam-like and contaminating the galaxy on its otherwise purely scientific mission. Spreading the weeds without which no eco-system could ever function. A cyst which stimulates the benign organism into action in order to fight, or more likely, to conceal itself and limit loses. Not to mention, if you read between the lines, the golden record was supposed to function as a note to rescue parties.



I’d like to end this missive with a few thoughts on prosperity, futility and the future of spam as I see it. How do people feel rewarded and how can we do things better?


The underlying logic of spam is that things will go your way, you will be powerful, get what you want and others will sense this power and seek you out for your fortuitous presence. Thus far it has been essentially like the ads in the back of 1950s comics with offers for x-ray vision and redemption for wimps at the beach getting sand kicked in their faces. But let’s approach this from a different angle and start by imagining if rats had a spam system. The rats hope for things that the scientists have conditioned them to seek thus mixing yearnings for prosperity, fate (predetermined conditions) and biology. If they do things, they can get rewards. Some rats never seem to get rewards, as the system requires. A gorgeous sunset fills the lab with an incredible light. We could also call this a spamset. The sky, enhanced by changes in atmospheric condition, takes on intense, saturated colours. When was the last time you watched the sunset? The rat normally without reward notices it, presumably rats usually do not seek such experience, but this one does. Look deep into the sunset my rat, feel an elongation of time, a deepening enchantment with your life. For a while there are no distractions. The sensory inputs are translated into hedonic messages experienced as ‘yumminess.’ Descending into a kind of ambient bliss, you are bored in the right way as the rosy light fills your eyes like an antidote to everything that has ever bothered you. An enhanced cityscape lies below the glowing ball in a time that has become valuable, endangered and trafficked. This is good, but there can be more. Do you have to work hard for this?


On the one hand, spam is the very essence of contemporary apathy, mental mush, something-for -nothing drivel – the magic of pills, lotteries, surprise bank transfers and miraculous occurrences like being reborn rich. No effort is required, no attention necessary, no risk, nothing unfamiliar, nothing without heavy amounts of salt or sugar depending on the dish. It’s a cornucopia of known pleasures provided at your advanced convenience. Shift choices away from effort toward easy. People used to talk about TV as lobotomy or neuroleptic; similarly, networked communication. The missing link between ADHD and Alzheimer’s. Why bother settling into anything?


On the other hand, the crux of spam is about achievement and gaining an edge within a Darwinian lab rat survival situation, with primal urges translated into the terms of techno-consumer-boardroom professionalism. Spam is the end of average and the key to incentive. Here we are seeing the world through psychopharmacological terms, which reveal animal survival narratives etched onto brain chemistry, which have been derived from Death of a Salesman and the complete works of every personal development guru who has ever existed. Spam is about facile indulgence and the magic of incentive, either or both or mixtures. Pleasure and reward, easy indulgence or stimulation for greater output, from spam to spam—we’ve got it covered.


A. Dopamine is not necessary for mice to like or learn about rewards but is necessary for mice to seek (want) rewards. —Robinson et al. 2005


B. Some way of making far wider use of that most powerful utensil of academic improvement – and that is academic competition between children themselves. —Boris Johnson, Mayor of London


C. I never delete my spam. —John Q. Rembrandt, Attentively E. Behavioral, Delvin Beltran and Forrest Pilgrim


We must combine pleasure or ‘liking,’ which by itself would just be a free-floating hedonic state, with an incentive target that can be reached seemingly without effort. The sunset can be enjoyed, but even better, the sun becomes an irresistible target. Reply to this email and you can transform mere perception or memory into a motivationally potent incentive. The next generation spam will be a composite construct that contains multiple component types: wanting, learning and liking. As always with S, exploit the last possible vulnerability in human, nature and machine.


Can we speak again of the opposite of spam, and might not spam’s future include what has hitherto been its opposite? What else can the golden record contain? The Internet has yet to begin. Hackers like Shakespeare as much as anyone else. The bad nucleus implodes in spam eradication and euphoria that no email filter could ever achieve. From incentive to silence. A gift without activation of the reward system. But how to get it? The end of easy and the end of the time of predictive rewards into uncertain moments and curiosity. The debate over dopamine's role in reward has ended. The system is aimless. Just the sunset, just the rat gazing and sniffing up into the salmon-hues. In a space without praise or condemnation. Aesthetic indifference transposed onto a rodent during a latent period in the lab. To avoid pairing the expectations of the jacket, with its share of failures from the Hugo basic, there is the reincarnation of the wayfarer design. Your eyes turn from sunlight that appears quickly. Originally released, sunglasses of a vast array of lovers. Viewing the child solely as an immature person is a way of escaping comforting him. No man is hurt but by himself as iron is eaten away by rust, so the envious are consumed by their own passion. Our sympathy is cold to the relation of distant misery. Laws are never as effective as habits. If we do not discipline ourselves the world will do it for us. I know what you’re going to say, every word, and most of it is true. He marched out to the porch, down to the drift of pine needles, in his nightshirt and bare feet. Please stop trying to be cute, and tell me what you’re up to. I’ll meet you in the usual old place about ten o’clock. Everybody took advantage of it and tried to borrow money. 

Tue, 06 Jul 2010 18:02:42 -0300



peter dot ersatz at gmail dot com