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The Inevitable Virus

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A virus is not a virus. At least in the way we have previously described the characteristics of a computer virus compared to that of a biological virus. In “The Spam Book” by Jussie Parikka and Tony Sampson the characteristics of a computer virus living in the networked spaced are analyzed, which leads to a greater understanding of how contagion spreads and ultimately, how the Internet space functions as a whole. Because of the analogies placed around computer viruses as similar to biological entities of the same name, we assume a negative connotation, but that may not be the case,as a virus challenges systems to evolve.

Computer viruses are seen as anomalous, nothing but trouble in what would be, should be a Utopian space where higher forms of communication are free to spread. Emboding the ideal of the 18th century coffee house; a meeting place where ideas were cultivated into diplomacy through connectivity to bring about the will of the people. If only there wasn’t so much junk floating around, infecting the conversation and getting in the way. But that junk is not junk at all. It’s inherently part of the system. It’s part of the information flow, the same (albeit often annoying) as any other discourse happening online. Viruses, spam, anomalous entities take up just as much traffic in the Internet space as “normal” operations, so why then, do we see it as an infecting, dark agent of destruction? Because it is. And it isn’t.

One of the more interesting points of “The Spam Book” is that an attempt to eradicate computer viruses  by mapping their life cycle may lead to new realizations that our initial vision of the structure of the Internet space was all wrong.

“The very notion of technology as a tool for management and manipulation (which then becomes a means of capitalist profit) is here giving birth to another kind of world composed of a multitude of tiny, self-organizing entities that neither form part of the natural order nor directly serve human interests., although the hope is that they can be gently nudged into doing so. For many, however, this is indeed a frightening prospect: a swarm of hopefully friendly creepers (38).”

In an Internet space where nodes are multiplied on top of nodes, with unnumbered possible points of connectivity the task of combating the spread of dangerous viruses and other spam seems impossible. They act differently than a biological virus because they have open, limitless space that is “scale-free” in which they are free to communicate, mutate, infect and die off. But is it best to act as a defensive player, building firewalls and seekers to combat and destroy, or is it possible to shift roles to a new paradigm?

“Furthermore, what makes this approach different from other studies of contagion, like those that focus on network security is that emergent virality is not solely grasped in oppositional terms of “bad’ code threatening to destroy a ‘good’ system. On the contrary, contagion modeling suggests that a system, however stable it may appear, cannot determine its own stability. Viral environments are thus not regarded here as a manifestation of some dreadful dark side of organic unity (41).”

Tracking the movements of a virus across the digital landscape and various mutations, life cycle and parasitic characteristics helps provide insight into virus potentials as well as the construction of the network space. A shift in understanding contagion can lead to a new relational concept between “good” and “bad”.

“The Spam Book” editors give several solutions that have been proposed to handle contagion, but few seem to have an overarching commentary on what is really happening online. Maybe that is because we don’t know for sure and we can’t predict with any real certainty. The information bits have blown up exponentially, too fast for our policing and procedural capabilities. What we can do is continue to ask questions; “…power and resistance are intimately coupled to pragmatic questions concerning stability and instability of connectivity in a network (45)” The questions addressed by the editors include the amount of connectivity we experience makes us more susceptible to mass contagion, offensive and defensive modes of network conflict, and arguments over the conception of epidemic network power as defined and promoted by media and government powers.

This is at the heart of the editor’s argument; we have to let go of the notion that we have any sense of control over what is happening online. We cannot control the rate of connectivity, nor should we want to. There is not a clear delineation between good and bad online and that includes viruses and other “threats” as designated by current societal norms. We have a media/ government promoted fear of them, but they are a natural part of the web ecosystem.

A computer virus may have similar characteristics to a biological contagion, but using the terminology in tandem causes problems with how we see the role of a computer virus. They do not work the same because the structure of the space in which they separately live is different. Contagion will inevitably spread in a network of unnumbered nodes and it is impossible to accurately map the strength or weakness of those nodes in order to fight the viruses. The argument presented in The Spam Book” by Jussie Parikka and Tony Sampson suggests we must shift toward the belief that virus enemies can be advantageous and those we consider to be anomalous are an active, ever-present, internal part of the free-space system.


Written by HiuHiMedia

October 3, 2011 at 7:04 pm

Posted in Technology

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