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The story behind the story: Staff meeting, as seen by the spam filter

This week sees the welcome return to Futures of Alex Shvartsman with his story Staff meeting, as seen by the spam filter. Alex’s previous tales have touched on subjects as diverse as coffee, time travel, alien invasions, big business and more. You can read more of his work and find out what he is up to by visiting his website or following him on Twitter. Here he reveals how spam inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Staff meeting, as seen by the spam filter

I find spam fascinating.

Not the kind that comes in a can, but the torrent of information flung at you across all media — be it in the form of an e-mail from a Nigerian prince, a commercial on a loop blaring from the loudspeaker set up outside a cell-phone shop, or an unwanted thick envelope of coupons arriving via snail mail.

If art is the product of creative skill and imagination designed to produce emotion, then spam is art, because annoyance and frustration are emotions. But it is also a con, a confidence scam designed to prey upon the most gullible and naive among us, inflicted upon the populace via what hackers refer to as a ‘brute force’ method: send the ad to enough people and a few are bound to show interest.

The arms race between the e-mail spammers and the software engineers is real and ongoing. The ‘white hats’ teach software to recognize the unwanted solicitations, while the ‘black hats’ are busy coming up with yet another euphemism for erectile dysfunction that they hope might sneak past the spam filter.  It may be a stretch, but given this race it was possible to imagine the filter software becoming gradually smarter and one day evolving into an artificial intelligence.

And when it does, what will it think of the torrent of spam it was created to detect?

This is actually my second spam-inspired story at Nature Futures. If you enjoyed it, check out The tell-tale ear as well!

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