Spam for Breakfast

Posted: May 29, 2003 12:00 AM

So, this morning, whom should I hear from, via e-mail, but TNG, seeking to set up 15-cent-per-minute conference calls for me?

Next came Angela Marrion, offering to "get creditors off (my) back." Joy Dill signaled her readiness to ship me Phentermine, Viagra or Soma "totally free" -- assuming I read her right. (The message could be understood as promising "totally free" pharmaceuticals, an unlikely prospect.)

And, yes, there was news from Jarnett Yoder, but I won't divulge in a family publication exactly what commercial transaction Brother Yoder was proposing we enter into. I will merely say it wasn't illegal.

Ah, the "spam" level is rising, as is the country's indignation level.

Legislatures are moving to outlaw spam, unsolicited advertising via e-mail. Calls are heard daily for the federal government to Do Something and Do It Now. Anti-spam services are stepping forward. Earthlink, I believe, is filing lawsuits against some of the worst perpetrators.

Where does it all end? My own instinct is to believe it doesn't. So long as there is something somebody believes someone else might be induced to buy, there will be advertisements of one sort or another -- most likely, many sorts. Spam is the latest manifestation.

What a mess, yes! You call up your e-mail. Yikes -- one dumb solicitation after another. How do these people get your address? (My own, I must admit, is public -- flamboyantly displayed, here and there, at the top or bottom of the column.)

On noting that you have once again been spammed, you have two options, as I make it out: You can immediately delete the item in question, or you can open it and "unsubscribe." Taking the first course is obviously quicker, but failing to unsubscribe renders you, theoretically, susceptible to hits from the same spammer. On the other hand, do you really know he isn't going to hit you again under another name? A third option is actually to read the Viagra offers and such like before deleting them. Each to his own.

Precisely what kind of regulation could improve the situation is hard to say. Human experience with regulation shows that for every problem it clears up, another one (unforeseen, of course) generally arises.

A larger point, maybe, is that advertising is often obnoxious, whether commercials on television or road signs on the highway. There are pleasant exceptions (e.g., the Burma Shave signs that used to decorate fence posts) but not many. The nature of advertising is to intrude -- to grab the attention of potential customers and sell them something. If you're fundamentally a non-shopper, you learn to tune out ads wherever you find them. I can, for instance, watch an entire TV show and end up unable to say who sponsored it. I only intermittently read newspaper ads, for all that ads, rather than subscriptions, put the meat on a newspaperman's table.

An e-mail account, unlike a newspaper, is semi-private, hence a candidate for some degree of protection against unwanted intrusion. But how much protection? Some? A lot? That which befits the ayatollahs' Iran? We might want to relax a bit

The commercial instinct -- which lies behind advertising of every kind -- possibly ought to be, but isn't ever going to be, completely lovely. People are going to try to sell us things we regard, often rightly, as ridiculous, moronic, tasteless, wasteful or unnecessary. Our job as consumers in a free society is to sort out, using our common sense, the moronic and wasteful from the desirable and useful.

Advertising is a tool -- one among many -- to advance that task. Even Jarnett Yoder (see above) has a place in this complex scheme of things. How nice it would be if this, ah, gentleman found larger uses for his time than the debasement of commercial discourse! But, sigh, freedom depends in some degree on the right to stupidity aforethought.

Let us as a society curb spam if we can ve-e-e-ry gently, with care and caution.