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.