How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway, Lawrence A. Canter & Martha S. Siegel

Harper Collins, 1994, 234 pages, C$28.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-270131-2

Do you like spam? Well, if so, you’re the perfect target audience for this piece of trash book whose repellent reputation is only exceeded by the scorn heaped upon its authors.

Allow me to use some of my Internet-Old-Timer credentials: In April 1994, Usenet users saw something very strange and very unusual: A message hawking legal services, posted to thousands of unrelated newsgroups. It wasn’t the first piece of spam, but it was widely acknowledged as such as the “Green Card Spam”. (Some will say that it was so appropriate that the first Internet hucksters would be lawyers with the temerity to charge hundreds of dollars for something that can be accomplished with a simple postcard) What we feared at the time (but really had no clue about, of course), was this was merely a small taste of things to come. For better or for worse, it was a significant event, a watershed in the transition of the Internet from its academic origins to its mass-market future.

Almost immediately after, flush with their success, Canter & Siegel decided to further annoy the burgeoning Internet community by writing a how-to book. As the title so obviously indicates, How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway is decidedly a book dating from 1994 and a proud inheritor of the “Make Money Fast!” school of business methods halfway between doubtful legitimacy and outright fraud. Here, the spamming duo tells all about both using the Internet for making money and forcing any message on unwilling users.

While I’m sure that the book must have been infuriating back then, things are somewhat different today: While I defy anyone to read this book and not want to slap its authors silly, this anger is somewhat diffused by the unfair advantage of hindsight. Nine years later, the Internet has changed a lot (No one ever calls it the “I-way”, for instance), and there’s a lot of twisted delight in seeing Canter & Siegel make bone-headed assumptions about Internet commerce that, of course, didn’t pan out. (The web as a series of virtual malls modelled after shopping malls? Er, not quite.)

But it’s somewhat disingenuous of us 2004-folks to laugh, right? As much as it pains me to say so, the truth is that this book does “get” the potential of legitimate business on the Internet, and did so years before everyone else. Yes, the “you too can make tons of money!” tone is grating, and it doesn’t take along time for the authors to reveal their true anti-technological colours (Page 3: “You’re here to make money. Therefore, our best advice is to ignore those clowns. (By clown, we mean the glassy-eyed nerd over there with the pocket protector.)”), but there’s a kernel of truth in this book that, frankly, has to be acknowledged.

That doesn’t let Canter & Siegel off the hook for what they did, of course. The first few pages of the book are a retelling of the infamous “Green Card Lottery Spam” as seen from their perspective, and no amount of self-congratulatory rhetoric and vituperation about those evil, evil techies can masquerade the authors’ venality. By the third time they’re kicked off their ISPs for their activities, no amount of tearful victimization can justify their wilful disregard for Usenet community standards. Time and time again, self-serving justifications show that Canter and Siegel have heard the right arguments against what they were doing. (Four simple words: “Tragedy of the Commons”. OK, one simple word: “inappropriate”) Yet they pooh-pooh the objections as ravings of marginal curmudgeons and proceed as if everything was OK. It’s during those passages that you start wishing for lighter fluid, a match and a private meeting with the authors.

Internet historians will undoubtedly get a kick out of this book, if only to hear “the other side” of the story. The delightful text screen-shots alone brought back many memories of very early excursions on the pure-text Internet. Otherwise, well, the web has left this book behind as an artifact of a time that was both simpler and more difficult. In the light of the subsequent spam scourge, it’s interesting to see that even Canter & Siegel are somewhat leery of using unsolicited mass mailings to drum up business [P.104-105]. Go figure why their ethics went so far and no further.

In the real world, there is a ghoulishly happy conclusion for all Canter & Siegel haters. According to sources around the Internet, the couple had a falling out soon after the publication of the book (a later edition was republished bearing only Siegel’s name), resulting in divorce. Then they lost their license to practise law once again. (They’d lost it in another state for unethical activities well before the “Green Card” spam) Siegel died of cancer in 2000 while Canter established a software company in California. Perhaps proving that there is such a fate worse than death, a 2002 CNET interview revealed an unrepentant Canter bemoaning the fact that he receives over three hundred spams per day.

How fitting. Welcome to the Internet you have created, you idiot.

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