TCS Daily

The Attention Economy Meets Spam

By Waldemar Ingdahl - November 7, 2003 12:00 AM

Few things unite people in ire as much as spam. Maybe because they feel like victims of a crime: attention theft.


There are practical reasons to loathe indiscriminate posting: it clogs up mail systems, it frequently uses illegal or quasi-legal methods to mass-mail through systems not belonging to the spammer, and false sender information confuses users. One should also not ignore the resistance many people feel to spam because it is commercial. Trying to earn money by selling something is suspect to some.


But the main reason for spam hatred is that it is intrusive. Spam mails desperately seek our attention, but seldom contribute anything we want.


Attention is one of our few truly limited resources. We only have a finite amount of it. It can be seen as our conscious bandwidth, clocked at a mere 30 bits per second or less. As the modern world provides more things to do and experience we also need to set aside some of our attention to the choosing of what to attend to, in addition to the actual attending. Being a scarce commodity it becomes valuable and expensive -- and we hate losing it.


One reason we experience information stress is the impression that we lack control; we are overwhelmed and cannot deal with new information as it arrives. We have come to expect the Internet to provide us with information and communication and become angry when it under-performs. These days dire predictions of the end of the usable Internet abound, somehow assuming that it is worse to have a spammed email account than none at all.


This is not really a problem of too much noise but rather that we cannot control who gets our attention. We leave our email open to the entire Internet, but become angry if people mail us something we do not want or do not care about. This fundamental discrepancy between how we estimate the value of our own attention and the efforts we make to manage it drives much of the spam debate.


Isn't this just blaming the victim? In a way it is, just as we blame someone who doesn't lock his door in a rough neighborhood when he is burglarized. The thieves are culpable, but the victim has been negligent. And as long as the victims of spam merely complain about their misfortune it will continue.


Should attention theft be a legal crime, and not just a disagreeable behavior? The problem is that attention can be directed at anything, and anything can attract attention: outrageous dressing, interesting political views, mathematics and sex. The payoff for the viewer is similarly subjective; some people think that herbal breast enlargement is a great thing to buy. And others consider even the most reasoned and eloquent political speech an intrusion into their prejudices. Any attempt to define what is unduly attention-getting or what payoff is too small and narrow will leave many valid communications labeled as attention-theft or will let spam through.


It is not just an issue of definitions or subjectivity, but that the categories of spam and non-spam overlap even for an individual. Hence attention theft can never be made a real crime in itself, and all spam filters, be they software or human minds, will be imperfect.


One can of course prosecute misleading advertising and scams. But that is the actual content of the spam, not the spam itself. Spam legislation has so far proven relatively toothless and will likely never become useful in hindering unwanted emails. It is too easy to send spam from outside the jurisdiction it is aimed at. Professional spammers use sophisticated methods of getting other peoples' computers to do the actual work, with minimal leads back to themselves. As is commonly remarked, spammers are always more technologically savvy than politicians.


It seems likely that the only cases where spam legislation will be used are against inexperienced or accidental spammers who can easily be traced. In many cases the new laws being promoted carry heavy fines proportional to the number of emails sent out. It is still fairly easy to accidentally mass mail thousands, which would carry sizeable penalties. It seems likely that beside a few small fry spammers the legislation will mostly strike against clueless people mailing to the wrong mailing list.


Government Solution?


But a deeper issue is that asking governments to fix spam is the wrong approach. Do we want governments to filter our information? It is not just about censorship; it is also about flexibility and who gets to set the rules.


A spam filter I do not have control over can redirect information I want or need in arbitrary ways, and having it adjusted can take significant effort. If it is a "one size fits all" system there may not even be a way of adjusting it to my needs. This is true both for technological systems (such as the "blacklists" that until recently combated spam before themselves being attacked out of existence by the spammers) and administrative methods. Just getting out of an automated blacklisting is complex enough to leave even a computer-savvy person tired. Now imagine having to deal with an overworked bureaucracy playing the same role.


It seems unlikely that any law against spam would truly prohibit political speech such as campaigning, but mass-mailing constituents is still spam, like trying to sell them a product. A law would also likely leave holes for other forms of speech, and spammers would have a strong incentive to exploit them (if they ever care about the law).


Instead we need to turn the situation around. We need to control better where we spend our attention. Part of the solution to this is technological. Various spam filters and software strategies exist that can help control our attention-spending. But they cannot be applied without some deliberate effort to use them.


Spam is just a sign that the attention economy is newborn. Once we truly start to think about how we value our attention and our own responsibility for it we will develop solutions.


We need to actually pay the price for a clean mailbox just as we pay the price for safe homes or well-tested pharmaceuticals. Asking that someone else should pay for it (or even worse, that all pay for protecting us from what we dislike) does not work. Demanding that others filter our information streams for us is basically misguided, equivalent to asking others to manage our money without at least asking for accountability. Having ISPs filter our email for spam and viruses is practical, but one should not rely on it.


The spammer's goal is to send an email that entices us to give it attention and hence a slight chance of profit. The economies of scale on the net make it profitable. Any attempt to stop spam has to attack the economical foundations of spam.


For example, next generation email systems containing micropayments strike at the heart of spam. In order for me to receive your mail you have to pay me a minimal fee (say one eurocent). This is so low that it does not matter to individuals communicating, but it makes mass mailing overly expensive. I could have a price list for different originators, giving my friends and the mailing lists I participate in discounts while taxing odious people and anonymous sources. Such a system would require not just micropayments but also secure authentification of senders and recipients. Both are very useful in themselves for many other applications but suffer from the need of having a sizeable user base to bootstrap from. If we start to regard our attention as having an actual monetary value, then paying for the attention of others is only fair, and it would help launch this kind of useful infrastructure.


Any new media will suffer the same problems as we have seen with spam on the Internet. Decreased transaction costs, increased choices that increase the value of attention and the ability to mass-communicate will produce something similar to spam.


We should count ourselves lucky that spam is just stealing attention. It might help us learn to recognize the true value of our personal resources.

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