Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses
Author: Jussi Parikka
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2007
Review Published: July 2008
I would like to start by thanking Joseph Nechvatal for his wonderful and encouraging review of my Digital Contagions. The review adds the perhaps needed Ballardian/Burroughsian flavour to my attempt to outline the centrality of the viral in digital culture. Nechvatal nicely frames the key rubrics of my book and its aim to discuss the ecological and complex intertwinings of security, politics, artificial life, aesthetics and popular culture through the notion and software object of the virus. Here we see how a particular object can act as a condensation point and as a vector to a plethora of crucial issues surrounding it. Or, in other words, my aim was to look at the affording milieus in which such a software object was possible both technically and culturally (without wanting to imply that the two are to be separated). In this sense, the virus can act virally -- and infect from technicalities of software to politics, economics and to the regimes of aesthetics as Nechvatal implies well.
In the case of Digital Contagions, the infections were planted on a historical and conceptual level. On the one hand, I wanted to map out a certain media archaeology of the viral culture which shares traits also with a more general perspective on the history of technology through its accidents. A wider history of media accidents is still to be written, even though my work addresses the recent decades of discourses of (digital) security, politics of bodies and borders in software and the vitalist echoings in artificial life. In this context, I hope that the book contributes to the discourse of media archaeology as well -- originated in the writings of Erkki Huhtamo, Siegfried Zielinski, also perhaps Friedrich Kittler, and the new histories of cinema, and developed further during the recent years for example by Wolfgang Ernst and Wendy Chun. My take on media archaeology emphasises the need for novel theoretical openings and a certain neomaterialist touch that recognizes the asignifying regimes as important as the structurations of meaning. Furthermore, the archaeological relays and mappings are seen in terms of ecological relations that are far from homeostatic or "natural." As Nechvatal points out, such ecologies are seen through machinic operations and planes of consistency of heterogeneous elements. In other words, ecologies are metastable (Gilbert Simondon), and work through strategical operations that aim to stabilize and destabilize processes. Why are certain bits of code stabilized as "malicious software"? Why are other forms of accidents allowed to exist? Such problems are eco-ethological questions of affiliations, attachments, relations and affects of software. This point also helps us to understand that instead of a general talk of "digitalisation of culture" (which I however acknowledge in my book as Nechvatal points out) there is a continuous boxing, labelling, weeding and cultivating at work that involves various levels and scales that act together in transversal relations. If I would have to rewrite my book now, I would add some detailed microcases relating to software and for example security discourses to illustrate the local levels where the discourses the book maps are enacted and take place. Of course, the number of contagious "messy objects" has expanded much beyond that of the viral and includes botnets, tracking software, adware, spyware, mobile malware and in a way spam.
This takes us to the second approach of the book, media ecology. As pointed above, the archaeological mappings are understood in terms of media ecologies where for example Matt Fuller's work has been a great inspiration. Ecological objects are always interdependent and networked: worms and viruses are part of processual networks of media ecology, not self-sustaining but always dependent on other, symbolic and material, elements within the network to maintain their existence. Media ecologies are then parasitic and coupling by nature. The challenge is not to take any notion of a healthy cultural network without disturbances or noise as the starting point, but to see elements of breakdown as part and parcel of those systems. Even if we are used to thinking of digital systems as harmonious, "in the beginning there was noise," as Michel Serres notes, emphasizing the priority we should give to the parasites which reveal the networks that otherwise are left unnoticed: assemblages reveal their structurations and links at the point of breaking down. This should be seen also as an ecosophical stance towards valuing the accidental.
One way to grasp the interdependent relations of digital culture is to approach software through their ethological relations and affects. In a Deleuze-Spinozian vein we can think of software as bodies in interaction and defined through their affects. Despite the ongoing classifications and regulations, software can be seen defined by intensive relations, or in other words, the potentials it has. Software have affects -- they can form relations and are part of a vast network of relations, like the virus with its three primary technical affects: 1) the copy routine which enables the distribution of the virus; 2) a trigger, which triggers the viral code into active mode; 3) a payload, which is often the level users perceive (playing a tune, displaying a message, or something directly harmful). Yet, in addition to such technical ethologies, there exists a much vaster sphere where "bodies" are formed and interact on scales ranging from ideas to politics, economics to aesthetics. And the reason why the various net art projects around viruses and contagious culture -- including for example the Google-Will-Eat-Itself-project -- are interesting is that they experiment with those relationships and try to find their defining topologies and thresholds as part of a politics of network culture.
Such rubrics are among what I touched in Digital Contagions and want to continue in my ongoing research projects, an edited book project called The Spam Book (co-edited with a fellow viral analyst Tony Sampson, and coming out at the end of the year) and my book-in-progress An Insect Theory of Media. In that project I turn from viruses to insects, and aim to write a certain media archaeology of the recent years of hype around insects in media design, theory and discourses. In Insect Theory of Media I extend the archaeological-ecological interest outside software as well. In a way, one could sum up the theme of that book through the idea: pick up an entomology book (the quirkier the better) and read it as media theory and realise the weird world of percepts, affects and sensations it introduces.
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