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.