Monthly Archives: February 2012

Transmission – Hari Kunzru

Hari Kunzru’s Transmission is, in my opinion, a very entertaining book to read although that it has touched upon different subject matters such as effects of technology on society or cultural clashes between Eastern and Western countries (e.g. India vs. America). If you have not read it, then you can find the summary of the book here. For those that have read the book, I would like to focus this blog on only one aspect: how technology has made an impact on society.

The story began with Arjun Mehta found himself a “dream” job in America: being able to work in Silicon Valley. Arjun is a guy that is very good with computer. In fact, he is a well-known figure for the underground hackers world. Through the book, you can see that Arjun, and many like him (e.g. people that working with computers like guys in the anti-virus team), seems to be very distancing in relationships with people around them. They feel themselves being rewired differently from others in the society. They have their own “codes.” They tried hard to not make face-to-face contact with each other. They cannot feel themselves at ease with the world around them, as it is not as orderly organized than the one inside their computers. Karl Marx predicted this problem of social alienation in the 19th century as a result of capitalism. As people are distanced themselves from the end products, they become autonomous. They are controlled by the ones in power. Arjun Mehta left his country to pursue the “American dream.” However, in America, he realized that despite of having a great talent for the computer, he was still cheap labor to the capitalistic world. Although he was not living the life he had imagined, the “American poverty” to him was still a better idea than coming back to become a disgrace to his family in India.

Through the events in the book, you could see Thomas Friedman’s flat world notion plays around. With a better communication system, information travels with a faster rate. Arjun called home whenever he needed support. But toward the end after releasing virus  Leela, he blamed this communication system for being to readily as it would mean his family could know of what he did in instant. As the world is flat, the economic is also more globalized. The markets are inter-linked. They are connected in a way that if one country has a problem, many others would be affected. After being released, Leela the virus traveled faster than the speed of light to deteriorates many computer systems around the world just in a short period of time. This created chaos and uncertainties (or could be preferred to as “noises”) as people lost control in their daily activities. Moreover, with the advance of technology and the readiness of the information infrastructure, they have taken away Arjun’s control over the situation. He could not anticipate the consequences that virus Leela would bring. He could not predict that virus Leela would shut down businesses, systems, and bring him legal problems (not to mention problems to his beloved Indian starlet Leela Zahir—the one he named the virus after). Moreover, he could not also predict the metamorphosis rate of the virus. In this book, to me, virus Leela is not an accident nor a byproduct of the system as suggested in Parikka’s Digital Contagions. But, Parikka  was right that the virus has become more dangerous, more malicious as it gets out of its writer’s control.

Although the ending was not what I expected; yet, Transmission has showed how technology has become a big role in everyone’s life nowadays. It changes the way we see, think, or feel the world. It connects the people in society through an interconnected system but it also alienates people from keeping touch with their real world. As a biological virus that would kill people in a physical way, a computer virus (or a digital virus in general) would “kill” people in a mental way. Guy suffered from losing his identity because of the system being shuffled and damaged by virus Leela. Arjun disappeared after being associated as a cyber terrorist. For technology to be part of our lives, the threat of cyber terrorism is real and threatening to many. Unlike a biological virus that we could develop vaccinations for, we might not be able to have “vaccinations” for computer viruses. Computer viruses cannot be eradicated forever for different reasons. For it to be a system or a human reason, the fear of losing your own personal data (or even identity since we are all a number in the system) has also become a part of life like the technology that brought this fear to life.

Computer Stress

Digital Contagions

In Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses, author Jussi Parikka offers an intensive analysis upon the cultural and historical context of computer viruses. Interestingly, Parikka has compared the computers to human biological bodies, thus the computer viruses are in the same analogy with the biological viruses and diseases. Reading Digital Contagions, one could easily relate the computer viruses phenomenon to the cholera epidemic in the Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. Both explained how the viruses reproduce and evolve within the host system, then spread and become contagious to the surrounding hosts. Computer viruses become more viral as the system of network grows. That is similar with how the growth of a population within small spaces (e.g. metro areas) facilitates a faster spread for diseases. Moreover, as the infrastructure expansion helps to spread biological diseases further to new lands, a floppy disc allows a faster infected rate from computer to computer.

According to Parikka, one of the many problems computer viruses cause is that they disrupt the standard routines of the computer users. As personal computers become more popular, more and more non-computer specialists could own and operate the machines. Those average users usually do not possess the in-depth knowledge of how a computer works; hence, they feel helpless when their computers are attacked by viruses (Parikka 2007, 60). As the world has become more digitalized, machines have become an integrated part of life. In the McDonaldization of Society, George Ritzer discusses about the notion of how life in contemporary American culture could be calculated, predicted and rationalized. The rationality is to make life predictable by calculated every aspects of it (e.g. the notion of timing). Hence, specialization (each person is specialized in only a certain field of knowledge) and standardization help explain the helplessness of the average computer users. Since we only specialize in one field, we rely on specialists in other fields for what we do not know. For example, we believe in doctor’s analysis, or call a plumber when our plumbing system breaks. Thus, the knowledge of computer belongs to those computer specialists. We have to rely on them when the system stops functioning properly, which explain for the feeling of helplessness when the viruses take over computers. Moreover, since American culture highly values the notion of time, every task is calculated (e.g. timetables), the disruption that is caused by computer viruses is a great offense to the idea of rationality. Life then becomes unpredictable, and this irrationality is not something one is expecting to experience.

Furthermore, Parikka discusses in great extent the idea of digital capitalism. Viruses are gold mines for the anti-virus software companies. They have converted accidents into profit (Parikka 2007, 100). However, this idea is not only applicable for computer system. When a disease strikes in human population, many opportunists would come out with so-called remedies. For the reason that those viruses could modify and evolve as they move to new environments, there are no absolute “cure.” This is especially true within the computer system. As more computers join the network, the number of viruses is growing. Thus, those anti-virus softwares will always need to keep updating constantly. In addition, those anti-virus systems also provide the immunization for computers with their database of known viruses. Yet, they can never fully stop a computer from being attacked by new viruses.

Many of those viruses are written by people. Some of these people claim that their creations are not meant to vandalize the system; yet, they could not predict whether another person would modify their work into something dangerous. In short, once a virus is released into the system, it is uncontrollable. Thus, the question of “control” is also fully discussed by Parikka. Due to the globalized connection of the network system, these virus writers have failed in making a correct trajectory for their creations. Moreover, as computers no longer exclusively belong to the specialists, key institutions of society start to worry about the security threats that could affect them. In today world, key institutions’ networks could easily be attacked or hacked by individuals that are not content with these institutions’ decisions. For example, the Anonymous Group in retaliation launched a distributed denial of service attack to institutions that they deemed were responsible for the shutdown of MegaUpload service. This fear of viral attack is best understood when one thinks of bio-terrorism.

In order to prepare a community for the fully immersion of life with the computer, the idea of computer literacy is necessary. Moreover, as users gain more knowledge of the digital world, the network, and ways of contracting those computer viruses, then they could better practice the “digital hygiene.” This way, computer users can become more autonomous in protecting themselves from being vulnerable to potentially malicious codes and untrustworthy people on the network.