Tuesday, 18 May 2010
Spam archaeologies - the Penny Post
If you thought spam is merely a function of digitally automated mass mailing, then consider this. In terms of expanding the logic of spam from the technical to the earlier 19th century standardisation through stamps and postage, and perhaps a more protocological understanding of how circulation of such processes as "post" (digital or human-hand held) functions, the introduction of the penny postage in England seemed to flag similar issues as spam in networks nowadays. A quote from the postal reformed Rowland Hill's diary from January 10 in 1840 gives an indication of what happened when the postage was standardized and cheapened:
"January 10th.--Penny Postage extended to the whole kingdom this day! ...I have abstained from going to the Post Office to-night lest I should embarrass their proceedings. I hear of large numbers of circulars being sent, and the Globe of to-night says the Post Office has been quite besieged by people preparing their letters. I guess that the number despatched to-night will not be less than 100,000, or more than three times what it was this day twelwe-months. If less I shall be disappointed." (quoted in Siegert, Relays, p.100)
In addition, what Siegert's book on "literature as an epoch of the postal system" inspires is a further systematic take on networks and procedures of mail that is of methodological advantage -- whether for archaeologies of overburdened postal networks, or for other network histories. If with Siegert as with Kittler we realized the very historical and hence contingent nature of such processes as "interpretation" in the hermeneutic, human-oriented sense, we are simultaneously in a position to realize the non-interpretational functions of current digital oriented processes of relay, reception, and sending.
"What this [adopting a Shannon perspective to communication systems] means is that signals transmitted by the communications system at a given time tn are not viewed as the function of a data source or receiver--not, let's say, as the expressions or intentions of people looking for the understanding of other people--but instead as a function of factors in the system of communication itself." (p. 99).
Indeed, beyond semantic meaning and the need to decipher with tools of hermeneutic literature analysis, spam does not necessarily mean much even if it has a logic of very meticulous nature. Spam does an awful lot of thing, and relies on the address spaces, mass mailing, various gaps in security too through which it spreads itself, but as a meaningful message it, naturally, fails. What this means however is not the failure of spam as a cultural practice, but a failure of such perspectives of analysis that would want to decipher it from a representational/meaningful position.
This point is made even more clear when we realize that such a huge amount of current traffic in networks happens between machines and governed always by protocols; spamming machines trying to find the gap to impose their message, and filtering machines, firewalls and such trying to catch such messages on time. Despite the 150 years in between, the parallels between early times of standardized postal systems and digital network traffic is not far-fetched, as with the on-going automatisation of procecesses of post already back then, as Siegert points out:
"Had Hill succeeded with his printing press, the only thing missing would have been some kind of reading machine, and all of England's written communication would have been completely standardized and mechanized, from production right through distribution to reception."