The Computer Virus: Our Cultural Contagion
It was then described as the most devastating computer virus ever created. Originating on 4th May 2000 in the Philippines, the virus quickly spread across the globe as an email attachment. Unsuspecting users received a message, subject, "ILOVEYOU", which appeared to be from a recognised contact. The message explained that a love letter was contained within the attached file: LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.txt. With predictable inevitability, recipients opened the file. Nine days later 50 million computer infections had been reported. The virus (more properly described as a worm which replicated itself furiously while over-writing existing files on victims' hard-drives) would go on to cause an estimated $5.5 billion in damage and force the CIA, The Pentagon and the UK Parliament among many others to reboot their email systems in order to flush out the virus. Two Filipino students, Onel de Guzman and her sister Irene's boyfriend, Reomel Lamores, were immediately investigated on suspicion of programming the attack. However, the charges against them were eventually dropped. Two years later, the ILOVEYOU virus was 'awarded' a World Record for being the most virulent computer infection in history.
These events have very recently provided loose inspiration for a new film, Subject: I Love You which premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival last month. The film's high-octane trailer alone belies the creators' interest in the clearly overlapping themes of love and infection while a hyperbolic voice-over observes the inherent irony: "A story about how saying 'I love you' almost ruined the world."
In this essay I will demonstrate how computer viruses are not just computer viruses. That is, they spread among us culturally and psychologically - as well as technologically. I intend to show how they exploit weaknesses in human beings as well as mainframes, and also why the discourse of computer viruses is particularly influential in the information age.
Ten days ago, on May 2nd 2011, US President Barack Obama announced that the CIA's Most Wanted criminal and terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, was dead. Obama himself had given the order, and watched the assault live with his staffers as a team of American special forces operatives put an end to the world's most well-known terrorist, the obsessively demonised architect of 9/11. The news came out of nowhere and the shock-value of Obama's announcement caused not only a momentary uptick in his opinion polls, but also the expected flurry of internet chatter and debate. The conspiracy theories arrived right on cue, as did more serious questions over whether executing Bin Laden in this way was morally (and diplomatically) defensible. Bin Laden was infamous for finding weaknesses in American security and plotting the murder of thousands by hijacking planes bound for the US, full of American travellers, and crashing them into buildings in New York and Washington. In the aftermath of the tragedy, attention turned to the spread of Al Qaeda terrorist cells, resulting in the definitive American paranoia of the 21st Century: that the terrorists were everywhere, like Russian spies during the Cold War, and were living unnoticed among US citizens, waiting to launch another attack. This hazy dissemination (of terrorist 'cells') was regularly figured, implicitly and explicitly, in viral terms.
How appropriate, then, that in the immediate aftermath of Bin Laden's execution, the idea of him, that obsession with what he represents, was instantly resurrected in the form of internet scams and computer viruses. The strength of these deceptions is in their social engineering rather than their technical sophistication. They are the analogical Trojan horses which, appearing as 'gifts' or welcome items of information, in actuality contain seeds of destruction and malice. Just like the ILOVEYOU virus before them, they directly exploit the emotional and psychological vulnerabilities or biases of the human operator before they undermine the physical vulnerabilities of any computer system itself. We, inevitably, remain the weakest link and as such the design and ramifications of viruses often explicitly target the chinks in our mental armour. If those chinks didn't exist, neither would many computer viruses. And that makes them all the more valuable inverted signifiers of who we are.
New media theorist Jussi Parikka has written about how viruses represent the necessary antithesis to the technological systems of control upon which Western society has become increasingly dependent. Parikka's contention is that viruses represent the white noise of our systematised world, the necessary feedback which Zygmunt Bauman described as "the other of order". As Parikka notes:
"According to some commentators, viral disorder should not mean solely anarchy but a space for variation and experimentation that resist the one-way ideology of computer rationalism. (See Sampson; Cohen; Deleuze.) For some, that ideology has been crystallized in the figure of Microsoft, a popular target for virus attacks."
Indeed, one of the world's most well-known viruses, The Blaster worm (also known as Lovesan or MSBlast), specifically targeted Microsoft operating systems and included two hidden messages, one of which read, "billy gates why do you make this possible ? Stop making money and fix your software!"
This helps to account for the prevalence and imaginative construction of many computer viruses, although it must be said that some do not necessarily contain any of these socially 'creative' elements. Nevertheless, many of the most successful viruses do seem to owe that success to their outward characteristics, and their pre-programmed cleverness is habitually reported with fascination by the media. This reportage leads to what many observers have called a kind of 'virus paranoia' in which the threat of computer viruses is seen as disproportionately cataclysmic. Anne-Marie Thomas comments in her dissertation on viruses and culture, It Came From Outer Space, "Information, it seems, is a more precious commodity than human life." Thomas identifies the deep implications of the biological viral metaphor and positions cultural awareness of computer viruses within a confused space. That confusion arises from a creeping parallelism which suggests that computer viruses and bodily viruses are, ideologically speaking, interchangeable pestilences threatening mankind in the 21st Century.
Few have examined that parallelism as rigorously as Antonio Casilli. In December, Casilli published an article about the conceptual proximity of certain computer viruses to bodily ones, pointing specifically to the true advent of computer viruses in the 1980s alongside the detection of the AIDS virus and the fiercely homophobic rhetoric which accompanied that detection. Casilli demonstrates how descriptions then of computer viruses "displayed features of risk and sexual desire." Casilli's extensive research into computer hacker fanzines and photographic representations of computer users provides him with numerous examples of how;
"Exchanging blood and bodily fluids came to overlap symbolically with exchanging computer files and hardware components: two mutually reinforcing illustrations of the same phenomenon of transgressing the boundaries imposed by clinical powers on the body."
He argues that the exponentially increasing levels of intimacy with computers, emphasis on their intuitive interfaces, and a tendency to anthropomorphise them instead of being content in assigning them an objectified status was the driving factor behind human beings aligning their own plight - in the face of an AIDS pandemic - with the digital vulnerability of computers. Both kinds of virus have taken humanity by surprise and have wreaked untold havoc in the absence of a cure.
A Social Illness?
But Casilli was not the first to make such assessments, which appeared during the 1980s in their first instance. And consider this thought-provoking article by Jeffrey Weinstock from 1997 in which the link between computer viruses and AIDS is also made, and in which Weinstock spends a good deal of time discussing how AIDS and 'hacking' as well as virus programming are both perceived culturally as "social illnesses". Indeed, Weinstock goes into more detail than Casilli about why the computer virus metaphor is so good that it begins to seem less like a metaphor the more one understands it:
"The virus as a piece of code is equally applicable to both human and machine. In neither case is it a wholly metaphorical application. This is why it is so difficult to figure the computer virus in other than biological terms: in contemporary culture, the body is technologized, the body is a machine. Thus, the rhetoric of one domain cannot be divorced from the other. Computer viruses and human viruses are reduced to the same thing."
What Weinstock refers to as "virus paranoia" is undoubtedly prevalent in today's ever more digitally 'enhanced' Western society. The initial instances of paranoia over the rogue worm or 'email virus' have been mirrored in more recent culturally resonant anxieties over the loss and mis-use of private data, social network stalking, cyber-bullying and the full-blown criminally engineered "cyber attack" in which terrorists, among others, now pose perhaps the greatest threat to our civilization because of their potential to directly and swiftly undermine our systems of communication, organisation and control.
In the past, this collective neurosis had manifested itself in largely quaint ways. These examples of notorious computer virus hoaxes (I particularly like GHOST.exe) demonstrate a kind of computer user's hypochondriasis, in which the suggestion or rumour of a virus triggers a heightened state of vigilance and, notably, a willingness to share information about the supposed virus via the network in order to warn others of its existence before they succumb to it. This anxiety is consequently turned into a battle between the speed and sophistication of the imagined virus and the speed and sophistication of human communication. Regardless of whether the virus is real or not, the perceived urgency of raising awareness of it is indicative of a cultural willingness to consolidate security against a threat, to win in the fight between darkness and light; disorder and order.
Where this now quite familiar tournament of malicious and non-malicious computer users becomes much more complicated is with the rise of pan-global hacker clans such as Anonymous. The very methods of self-construction employed by the group - constantly figuring themselves as an exclusive, anonymous, anarchic, amorphous entity -are clear expressions of a desire to downplay human individuality in favour of the collective implications of their 'hacktivism' - their actions online, within computer systems, are their identity for which they readily reject and discard signifiers of personhood and citizenship. They have thus engineered their 'non-identity' as a near-perfect Other to the dominant mode in Western society (which is individualistic, materialistic and fearful of anarchy). As such, they become a kind of human computer virus, perhaps fulfilling the prophecy laid out by descriptions of hackers and hacker counter-culture during the 1980s. Anonymous, and responses to them, are the current culmination of that initial brand of attacks on software and systems. That is, they are united by a socio-political agenda and choose specific, 'valued targets' for every new round of denial of service barrages. (For more on hackers specifically, do see this essay in The Cybercultures Reader).
And isn't it curious that the most recognisable hacker of our generation has some of the most carefully composed political theories ready as justifications for his actions? Julian Assange is the prime symbol of the 'malicious' and 'anarchic' threat, the weird outcast from regular society who we constantly figure as taking revenge on systems upon which we supposedly depend for stability and integrity, but which we rarely truly understand. Assange is, therefore, a personification of the cultural 'noise', the negativity generated by our otherwise 'positive' and 'controlled' machines. And is it not also curious, if not simply coincidental, that Assange is currently facing extradition to Sweden over an alleged rape and sexual assault, including an incident in which he purportedly refused to wear a condom during sex? Whether or not these accusations are true, the analogy of sexual and digital contamination, discussed by Weinstock and Casillo, as an inevitable metaphorical cross-over is conveniently present here. Assange is thus the embodiment of all of our fears about virulence and the vulnerabilities of networks. He is an prime example, indeed, of the computer virus. Programmed to cause disruption, yet socially inquisitive and engaging, and self-replicating in the image of his followers, Assange does what all viruses try to do and the dominant forces in society will not be content until he is eradicated.
Assange, however, is a particular case upon whom I shall, for the moment, say no more. My concluding point is simply to summarise the observation that computer viruses are not simply good for us, they are inevitable. They are perhaps the least frequently cited signifiers of how human interplay with machines, specifically computers, has become extremely intimate over time. Coded within viruses are elements of destruction, yes, but their more abstract, 'cultural code' reveals candid details about who we are and how we relate to technology. As Jussi Parikka concludes, they are the "parasites who reveal the networks of power that otherwise are left unnoticed." The infection, therefore, is in all of us.
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Computer viruses are not just computer viruses. They spread in pathological as well as technological ways.