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Powering Consumerism, One Spam Mail at a Time


I’ve noticed a recent uptick in the number of USPS Informed Delivery emails I’m receiving (and of course, the increased mail to accompany it). Contrary to my hopes that they’re letters from secret admirers, I seem to be receiving more marketing offers now.

It turns out that my credit score has finally risen past the good threshold, and our corporate overlords have taken note of this. Yay for personal finance I guess? Since I’ve been deemed a productive asset in society, I’ve started receiving a flood of “prescreened offers of credit” from banks, telecom companies, insurance gamblers, and more.

“1.5% Unlimited cash back, 0% Intro APR, $0 Annual Fee!”

“Get a FREE 5G phone!”

“Redeem your personal offer!”

It looks like “the Consumer Credit Reporting Companies” assessed that people are better off when they receive an avalanche of “firm offers” for credit cards, phone plans, and home loans. As a result, my personal details were helpfully shared with who-knows-how-many corporations.

The other day, I finally noticed some fineprint detailing how I can choose to stop being put on these lists by calling a phone number, and so I did.

Call Our Toll-Free Number!

Before dialing the number, I prepared myself to go on hold for a while and endure rounds of deliberately annoying steps. Normally, I wouldn’t even bother trying. However the implications were clear this time: if I didn’t make the choice to unsubscribe, I’d be bombarded with these offers indefinitely. Clearly the onus is on me.

Thankfully, there was a robot at the other end of the line and I was able to get most of my details relayed via the keypad. Unfortunately, the system completely broke down as I tried to spell out my name. It refused to understand my last name despite my best attempts to spell it out using a spectrum of accents, from South Indian cool-kid, to American valley-kid. Maybe I should have tried American country-kid. (I wonder why the old-school/landline-era/buttons-on-a-phone method used for inputting characters isn’t an option.)

After this ordeal, the robot kindly told me that they “have my request”. I guess that means there’s no guarantee I’ll be removed from their list, even less so because Amal Baensog is not going to match their records.

I then re-read some of the spam I’d received. In the fineprint to the fineprint, I noticed that the opt-out service has a website too! Gee, thanks! I submitted another request via their form and it was far easier.

However, with my luck and how bureaucratic machines seem to work, my guess is I’ll be rejected because I submitted two opt-out requests simultaneously. Clearly serving both of these will cause their database to implode.

It’s also weird how you’re allowed to opt out for five years via phone or their online form, but permanently opting out requires sending a physical application form via the mail. Please make it make sense.

Besides these deliberately annoying hoops companies make us jump through to regain a semblance of sanity and privacy, there are still many problems with modern advertising practices.

Advertising isn’t inherently bad. There are legitimate uses of making consumers aware of your product and its qualities, so I get it. But most modern advertising is annoying because it violates consent — I don’t think this requires any elaboration.

There is a huge Iceberg Effect lurking under this too. Voter registration records are public in a sizeable number of states; financial institutions are monitoring and sharing our expenditure data; data brokers are a thing; the lizard people know everything about us. I don’t even want to begin imagining what vast troves of data are being analyzed to monitor and predict our lives without our explicit and specific consent.

I guess we’re just supposed to accept the fact that blanket consent agreements exist, and that true ownership of personal data is a pipe dream.

Spectacular Waste

My house receives spam mail from telecom companies, sandwich stores, and pizza places on a weekly basis. From the people I’ve spoken to and my own experience, this mail almost always goes directly into the recycling bin.

Now I’m sure these stacks of discount coupons can be useful to some people, but none of us at home eat $5 foot longs or large pepperoni pizzas on a daily basis. All these pamphlets are being printed, distributed, and discarded in one spectacular, wasteful cycle. Remember that each of these steps requires energy. We are losing finite resources and energy for every piece of spam mail that goes through this cycle, in every household, across the world.

The cost of all the cheap pamphlets we receive is probably a rounding error for these megacorporations, but I really think we could make this situation a little less zero-sum by using resources in more meaningful ways.

I Have No Hope

I don’t think the consent/privacy problem is super easy to solve by any means. Sure, you could be an absolutist and prohibit any sharing of data across corporate boundaries, but how do you determine true need and honest intentions at such a large scale? For instance, the majority of GDPR cookie dialogs I interact with on the www are plain annoying because of their dark patterns. I have a feeling businesses will use similar strategies to lure and trick consumers with an absolutist policy in place. Bad, but better, I guess?

And unsolicited advertising isn’t a new problem; I know I’m not special for writing a rant about it. Truthfully I have no hope or expectations that the problems associated with such advertising and spam will be addressed any time soon. I’m sure the industry behind this is extremely lucrative (oh think about the jobs!) and it will be difficult to undo their work.

There’s no better way to keep your population’s head down and addicted to the consumerist lifestyle than constantly bombarding them with adverts about the shiny new iPhone, latest seasonal outfits, and low interest rates.

Please just make things opt-in.

~ Amal