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.


5 thoughts on “Digital Contagions

  1. scrowe1

    In both Digital Contagions and the last two texts we have read, we discussed how a virus, such as Cholera, Ebola, and Smallpox, are spread uncontrollably and create chaos in the lives of a lot of people.

    You mentioned a key term in your blog that I think is crucial in understanding how computer viruses evolve. It’s the word “uncontrollable.” This term, and for obvious reasons, I believe, often carries a negative connotation when mentioned in the context of a virus. I think this is what concerns us so much about virus’ to begin with- our desire for control and the occasional inability to do so.

    You also mentioned this aspect of unpredictability. Have you ever noticed how people insist on predicting just about everything? A sporting event, a marriage proposal, the end of the world, the weather! We are a culture that feels as if it is our right to know and have control of just about everything in our lives. I think that in order to be where it wants to be in the near future, computer systems and there creators are going to have to find a way in which they can gain the trust of users and keep it as well as sharing the control.

    1. Hanh M Nguyen Post author

      yea, the need for a predictable life is something that so major in American culture. Everything needs to be done in accordance to a plan: college, job, grad school, family, kids, kids go to schools, grandchildren, retired… and when life doesn’t happen according to that plan, it’s life a virus has attacked—chaotic, the person feeling helpless, lost and all. i think it’s a very interesting thing to think about 😀

  2. jessicamwhitney

    Digital Contagions Response by Jessica Whitney

    Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses is a well written book that goes into great detail about computer viruses. This book explains how computer viruses are similar to any other virus. It also relates to Viruses, Plagues and History by Oldstone and the book The Ghost Map by Johnson. All of these books talk about viruses, how they are contracted and how quickly they spread.

    After reading Digital Contagions, I have a better understanding of how viruses spread and how bad they can affect a computer. The comparison you gave about Digital Contagions relate to The Ghost Map was a very good comparison eventhough they are two totally different viruses they still spread at an increasingly rate. It is amazing how the two virsues that are different share some of the same charateristics.

    The comparison about the disease striking a human population really sparked my attention because it goes hand in hand with the computer virsus. They only difference is the one pretaining to a human being and the other one is pretaining to a computer. I agree with your blog because it gives different advantages and disadvantages of different virsuses and how all of them have similarities and dissimilarities.

    1. Hanh M Nguyen Post author

      you know, i think we have gone a great length to think of ourselves like machines. you hear people keep saying: i need to recharge my own battery, or my energy is running low, or im crashing, need to reboot, need to boost my engine. and when someone has done something really stupid, people just say: “there must be something wrong going on in his head.” it’s like that chapter in the book, when Parikka said the computer has a brain, and the virus attacked the brain and everything went wrong? I think it’s the same anology here too 😛

  3. Kim A. Knight

    You make a series of interesting observations here, Hanh. I love the moment where you bring in the idea of rationalization and disruption. As a reader, I was hoping you would return to this idea at the end. How does this connect to digital literacy? For future posts, be sure to tie all of your thoughts together and don’t forget to try to answer the question, “so what?”


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