Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Facts, Factoids, and the Poetry of Spam

December 30th, 2002 · No Comments

Tom Palmer recently blogged about his visit to Britain’s “Eden Project,” where to his incredulity, he found a largely spurious piece of spam presented as “educational material.” The spam purports to describe what the composition of a “global village” would be like if we compressed the world’s population into a hundred person town.

A little poking turned up this story in Fast Company, whose authors decided to do some rudimentary fact-checking. Along with falsifying the common attribution of the spam to a doctor at Stanford, they turned up some pretty yawning chasms between truth and representation:

80 would live in substandard housing
25 would live in substandard housing
Source: Habitat for Humanity International, “Why Habitat is Needed.”

70 would be unable to read
17 would be unable to read
Source: UNICEF, “The State of the World’s Children 1999.

50 would suffer from malnutrition
13 would suffer from malnutrition
Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, cited at OBGYN.net.

1 would own a computer
4 would own a computer (as of five years ago!)
Source: UN Human Development Indicators, “Access to Information and Communications 1995.

What the disparities here illustrate rather strikingly, I think, is that the people who circulate this stuff for the warm fuzzies it gives them aren’t actually particularly interested in, say, the developing world or its problems. A few points off here or there could be ignored. But misrepresenting the facts by a factor of three or four is an error so grotesque that it could hardly be missed by anyone who were concerned enough about global hunger or illiteracy to want to be well informed about them. That the information is bad shouldn’t be surprising; it’s the Internet. That it’s that bad and should continue to circulate precisely as a token of concern for the situations it misrepresents — a concern it belies by its own circulations — well, that’s actually sort of poetic. Contemplating that state of affairs gives me more joy than any of the many dozens of herbal Viagra, Nigerian bank fraud, or hassle-your-congressperson (my what? this is D.C.!) spam I’ve ever recieved. Perhaps I should soften my criticism of this factoid souffle, stop harping on truth or falsehood. Viewed strictly as a piece of performance art, as perhaps it deserves to be viewed, it’s no more capable of “truth” or “falsehood” than a sonata or a jig. Bless you, little spam. Long may you thrive.

Update: Snopes also has its own deconstruction, with slightly different numbers.

Tags: Uncategorized