Pluralistic: Sympathy for the spammer (15 Jan 2024)

Today's links

A 19th century illustration of the breaking of Bailey's Dam on the Red River, showing a steamship being washed over a gush of water. It has been altered. Looming over the high side of the water is a picture of WC Fields as a hat waving, open-mouthed carny barker. Fields's stomach has been replaced with the glaring red eye of HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey.' Bobbing in the waters are multiple poop emojis. The water has been tinted poop-brown.

Sympathy for the spammer (permalink)

In any scam, any con, any hustle, the big winners are the people who supply the scammers – not the scammers themselves. The kids selling dope on the corner are making less than minimum wage, while the respectable crime-bosses who own the labs clean up. Desperate "retail investors" who buy shitcoins from Superbowl ads get skinned, while the MBA bros who issue the coins make millions (in real dollars, not crypto).

It's ever been thus. The California gold rush was a con, and nearly everyone who went west went broke. Famously, the only reliable way to cash out on the gold rush was to sell "picks and shovels" to the credulous, doomed and desperate. That's how Leland Stanford made his fortune, which he funneled into eugenics programs (and founding a university):

That means that the people who try to con you are almost always getting conned themselves. Think of Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) scams. My forthcoming novel The Bezzle opens with a baroque and improbable fast-food Ponzi in the town of Avalon on the island of Catalina, founded by the chicle monopolist William Wrigley Jr:

Wrigley found fast food declasse and banned it from the island, a rule that persists to this day. In The Bezzle, the forensic detective Martin Hench uncovers The Fry Guys, an MLM that flash-freezes contraband burgers and fries smuggled on-island from the mainland and sells them to islanders though an "affiliate marketing" scheme that is really about recruiting other affiliate marketers to sell under you. As with every MLM, the value of the burgers and fries sold is dwarfed by the gigantic edifice of finance fraud built around it, with "points" being bought and sold for real cash, which is snaffled up and sucked out of the island by a greedy mainlander who is behind the scheme.

A "bezzle" is John Kenneth Galbraith's term for "the magic interval when a confidence trickster knows he has the money he has appropriated but the victim does not yet understand that he has lost it." In every scam, there's a period where everyone feels richer – but only the scammers are actually cleaning up. The wealth of the marks is illusory, but the longer the scammer can preserve the illusion, the more real money the marks will pump into the system.

MLMs are particularly ugly, because they target people who are shut out of economic opportunity – women, people of color, working people. These people necessarily rely on social ties for survival, looking after each others' kids, loaning each other money they can't afford, sharing what little they have when others have nothing.

It's this social cohesion that MLMs weaponize. Crypto "entrepreneurs" are encouraged to suck in their friends and family by telling them that they're "building Black wealth." Working women are exhorted to suck in their bffs by appealing to their sisterhood and the chance for "women to lift each other up."

The "sales people" trying to get you to buy crypto or leggings or supplements are engaged in predatory conduct that will make you financially and socially worse off, wrecking their communities' finances and shattering the mutual aid survival networks they rely on. But they're not getting rich on this – they're also being scammed:

This really hit home for me in the early 2000s, when I was still editing Boing Boing. We had a submission form where our readers could submit links for us to look at for inclusion on the blog, and it was overwhelmed by spam. We'd add all kinds of antispam to it, and still, we'd get floods of hundreds or even thousands of spam submissions to it.

One night, I was lying in my bed in London and watching these spams roll in. They were all for small businesses in the rustbelt, handyman services, lawn-care, odd jobs, that kind of thing. They were 10 million miles from the kind of thing we'd ever post about on Boing Boing. They were coming in so thickly that I literally couldn't finish downloading my email – the POP session was dropping before I could get all the mail in the spool. I had to ssh into my mail server and delete them by hand. It was maddening.

Frustrated and furious, I started calling the phone numbers associated with these small businesses, demanding an explanation. I assumed that they'd hired some kind of sleazy marketing service and I wanted to know who it was so I could give them a piece of my mind.

But what I discovered when I got through was much weirder. These people had all been laid off from factories that were shuttering due to globalization. As part of their termination packages, their bosses had offered them "retraining" via "courses" in founding their own businesses.

The "courses" were the precursors to the current era's rise-and-grind hustle-culture scams (again, the only people getting rich from that stuff are the people selling the courses – the "students" finish the course poorer). They promised these laid-off workers, who'd given their lives to their former employers before being discarded, that they just needed to pull themselves up by their own boostraps:

After all, we had the internet now! There were so many new opportunities to be your own boss! The course came with a dreadful build-your-own-website service, complete with an overpriced domain sales portal, and a single form for submitting your new business to "thousands of search engines."

This was nearly 20 years ago, but even then, there was really only one search engine that mattered: Google. The "thousands of search engines" the scammers promised to submit these desperate peoples' websites to were just submission forms for directories, indexes, blogs, and mailing lists. The number of directories, indexes, blogs and mailing lists that would publish their submissions was either "zero" or "nearly zero." There was certainly no possibility that anyone at Boing Boing would ever press the wrong key and accidentally write a 500-word blog post about a leaf-raking service in a collapsing deindustrialized exurb in Kentucky or Ohio.

The people who were drowning me in spam weren't the scammers – they were the scammees.

But that's only half the story. Years later, I discovered how our submission form was getting included in this get-rich-quick's mass-submission system. It was a MLM! Coders in the former Soviet Union were getting work via darknet websites that promised them relative pittances for every submission form they reverse-engineered and submitted. The smart coders didn't crack the forms directly – they recruited other, less business-savvy coders to do that for them, and then often as not, ripped them off.

The scam economy runs on this kind of indirection, where scammees are turned into scammers, who flood useful and productive and nice spaces with useless dross that doesn't even make them any money. Take the submission queue at Clarkesworld, the great online science fiction magazine, which famously had to close after it was flooded with thousands of junk submission "written" by LLMs:

There was a zero percent chance that Neil Clarke would accidentally accept one of these submissions. They were uniformly terrible. The people submitting these "stories" weren't frustrated sf writers who'd discovered a "life hack" that let them turn out more brilliant prose at scale.

They were scammers who'd been scammed into thinking that AIs were the key to a life of passive income, a 4-Hour Work-Week powered by an AI-based self-licking ice-cream cone:

This is absolutely classic passive-income brainworms thinking. "I have a bot that can turn out plausible sentences. I will locate places where sentences can be exchanged for money, aim my bot at it, sit back, and count my winnings." It's MBA logic on meth: find a thing people pay for, then, without bothering to understand why they pay for that thing, find a way to generate something like it at scale and bombard them with it.

Con artists start by conning themselves, with the idea that "you can't con an honest man." But the factor that predicts whether someone is connable isn't their honesty – it's their desperation. The kid selling drugs on the corner, the mom desperately DMing her high-school friends to sell them leggings, the cousin who insists that you get in on their shitcoin – they're all doing it because the system is rigged against them, and getting worse every day.

These people reason – correctly – that all the people getting really rich are scamming. If Amazon can make $38b/year selling "ads" that push worse products that cost more to the top of their search results, why should the mere fact that an "opportunity" is obviously predatory and fraudulent disqualify it?

The quest for passive income is really the quest for a "greater fool," the economist's term for the person who relieves you of the useless crap you just overpaid for. It rots the mind, atomizes communities, shatters solidarity and breeds cynicism:

The rise and rise of botshit cannot be separated from this phenomenon. The botshit in our search-results, our social media feeds, and our in-boxes isn't making money for the enshittifiers who send it – rather, they are being hustled by someone who's selling them the "picks and shovels" for the AI gold rush:

That's the true cost of all the automation-driven unemployment criti-hype: while we're nowhere near a place where bots can steal your job, we're certainly at the point where your boss can be suckered into firing you and replacing you with a bot that fails at doing your job:

The manic "entrepreneurs" who've been stampeded into panic by the (correct) perception that the economy is a game of musical chairs where the number of chairs is decreasing at breakneck speed are easy marks for the Leland Stanfords of AI, who are creating generational wealth for themselves by promising that their bots will automate away all the tedious work that goes into creating value. Expect a lot more Amazon Marketplace products called "I'm sorry, I cannot fulfil this request as it goes against OpenAI use policy":

No one's going to buy these products, but the AI picks-and-shovels people will still reap a fortune from the attempt. And because history repeats itself, these newly minted billionaires are continuing Leland Stanford's love affair with eugenics:

The fact that AI spam doesn't pay is important to the fortunes of AI companies. Most high-value AI applications are very risk-intolerant (self-driving cars, radiology analysis, etc). An AI tool might help a human perform these tasks more accurately – by warning them of things that they've missed – but that's not how AI will turn a profit. There's no market for AI that makes your workers cost more but makes them better at their jobs:

Plenty of people think that spam might be the elusive high-value, low-risk AI application. But that's just not true. The point of AI spam is to get clicks from people who are looking for better content. It's SEO. No one reads 2,000 words of algorithm-pleasing LLM garbage over an omelette recipe and then subscribes to that site's feed.

And the omelette recipe generates pennies for the spammer that posted it. They are doing massive volume in order to make those pennies into dollars. You don't make money by posting one spam. If every spammer had to pay the actual recovery costs (energy, chillers, capital amortization, wages) for their query, every AI spam would lose (lots of) money.

Hustle culture and passive income are about turning other peoples' dollars into your dimes. It is a negative-sum activity, a net drain on society. Behind every seemingly successful "passive income" is a con artist who's getting rich by promising – but not delivering – that elusive passive income, and then blaming the victims for not hustling hard enough:

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Wingsuit base jumpers are human flying squirrels — video

#10yrsago RIP, Neal Barret Junior

#10yrsago Patent mess goes to the Supreme Court

#10yrsago Requirements for DRM in HTML5 are a secret

#10yrsago NSA official: mass spying has foiled one (or fewer) plots in its whole history

#5yrsago From the empty, shutdown IRS, automated processes are sending out property seizure notices, and no human can stop them

#5yrsago Google Walkout meets #MeToo in a new anti-arbitration campaign

#5yrsago Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reaches more people on Twitter than the press and establishment Democrats

#5yrsago In LA, the teachers of America’s largest school district are on strike

#1yrago Kate Beaton's "Ducks"

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: The Bezzle, read by Wil Wheaton (excerpt)
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest books:

Upcoming books:

  • The Bezzle: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about prison-tech and other grifts, Tor Books, February 2024

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

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