One upside of my recent battles with ants - which are going passing well, thanks for asking: a combination of bait traps, orange oil, cinnamon barriers and no-holds-barred squishing (combined with finding the tin of not-quite-closed Golden Syrup which had evidently acted as their Mecca) has for the time being reduced them to the level of Minor Crisis - is that I’ve finally understood how the Internet works. Something I initially found freaky about ants - and still find freaky, now I've come to consider them properly for the first time in many years - is their operational model. They're really tiny, taken as individuals, especially these Argentinian ones I'm dealing with — minute little beats of life that go out into the world and explore, apparently at random. One goes this way, another goes the other, until finally one scout happens upon something worth taking an interest in, at which point said plucky ant goes bombing back to the colony and (how, I'm still not sure: by waving its antennae or pumping out pheromones or something) says "Holy cow, dudes, you'll never believe what I've found. They’ve only left a tin of liquid sugar open, way in the back of a cupboard. No, seriously! It’s the motherlode!”
At which point I guess he leads them back there, or some of them immediately scuttle back along the squirts of chemical the scout exitably left on his way hoe to break the good news, and later they return to the nest with confirmation in the shape of little dabs of sugar on their feet, and many more go back the same way... until finally there’s a bloody superhighway of ants marching back and forth across your kitchen. I’m sure any entomologists out there may be wincing at this description, but it seems to boil down to something along those lines.
Now. Yesterday afternoon I was sitting finishing off a short story when a text message came in. Neither I nor my phone’s address database recognised the number, which had a 618 code. The SMS simply said:
Confused — this isn’t the way any of my friends would normaly greet me, even if they’d got or borrowed a new phone, I replied:
Hi to you, too. Um, who’s this?
The response came back:
How about we catch up on Ya-H00 IM User-name is annagirly03
So, unless this is someone delightful that I’ve met one evening while unusually drunk (note to wife - that’s a joke) it’s SMS spam. But how’s it supposed to work? I have to make the effort to go to the computer, find a way of using Yahoo IM — which I’ve never done before — and speculatively send out a message to annagirly03 in the hope of either clearing up a confusion or meeting someone? What happens if I do? Does whatever vague entity commands that handle then try to reel me in on some scam? What are the chances of me being dumb or bored enough to fall for that? About the same, I suppose, as me responding positively to a Nigerian plea for assistance in banking $72M, or clicking on what purports to be a receipt for a piece of hardware I know I haven’t ordered, or being stupid enough to click on a missive from PayPal or a bank I don’t have any money lodged with, saying my account’s in suspension... without hovering my cursor over the action link to check it first, in the full knowledge it will be “www.thievingrussianbastards.ru/scamfest2013/moohahaha.php”
I realise now that the chances don't have to be high, because each of these pieces of spam are scout ants, of course — sent out in their hundreds of thousands, randomly crawling across the vast kitchen of the internet in the hope one of them will find a pot of sugar. Clicking on a link is like sending the scout back to the colony with good news — we’ve found a sucker — and concerted attempts will then be made to relieve me of my money. Never mind the fact that had someone’s wife or girlfriend found the SMS message I received above, and been of a suspicious frame of mind, an apocalyptic fight might have ensued. Ants don’t care about you, you see. They don’t even really understand that you exist. Spammers and phishers are the same. They’re not the same as us. They’re a different species that just happens to look similar. They are aliens who steal.
It’s bigger and more generalised than this, though. For years my in-tray was blissfully free of spam (I’ve long had a .mac account, and that alone was well worth paying the sixty quid a year that people used to bleat about). At some point in the last few months, however, I’ve evidently given my address to some site or piece of software that has passed it on - squirted a trail of pheremones leading to me, in other words - and now I spend a small portion of each day deleting or unsubscribing from spam lists, like squishing ants (and yes, I’m fully aware that hitting “unsubscribe” on especially unscrupulous pages is just a way of confirming that your email address is live). Just to be clear, if they’re listening, I really don’t want to join your site, Christian Singles dating agency — and I don’t actually think you want me on your books, either. And what would Jesus think if he knew you’d been spamming people? You should be ashamed of yourselves. You just wait until your God gets home.
But this isn’t the end of it either, of course. Use Facebook? Every time you “Like” something — especially on a commercial site — you’re prising open a little pot of sugar. Little advertising ants will come and roam around your home page forever more. Use Google search or Chrome without taking the precaution of turning off your history? You’re leaving a phereomone trail that will lead scout after scout into your virtual kitchen until the end of time. In both cases the Queen sits back in her lair in Silicon Valley, watching her colony getting bigger and bigger and more and more successful and rich.
The accumlation of Argentinian ants along the Californian coast I mentioned in the last post must include a truly vast number of the little buggers, but it’s only 500 miles long. The internet behemoths cover the entire world. We’re surrounded by them, all the time.
We all live inside the colony now.